May 28, 2013

In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids

Parents who have minor children at home are a relatively tech-savvy group. They are more likely than other adults to have computers, internet access, smartphones, and tablet computers. (This relatively high tech use may be due to the fact that parents with minor children living at home tend to also be younger than other adults.) They are also more likely than adults without children to read e-books.

But as parents adopt new reading habits for themselves on electronic devices, the data show that print books remain important when it comes to their children.

More than nine in ten parents of minor children say it is important to them that their children read print books—eighty-one percent say it is “very important,” and an additional 13% say it is “somewhat important.” Very few say having their children read print books is “not too important” (3%) or “not important at all” (3%).

E-reading has been on the rise—some 23% of Americans ages 16 and older read an e-book in 2012, up from 16% the year before. The proportion of American adults who own an e-reading device is increasing as well, with 31% of adults ages 18 and older now owning a tablet and 26% owning an e-reader. And even at the end of 2011, over a third of tablet and e-reader owners who did long-form reading in digital format said they were reading more due to the availability of e-content.

When it comes to sharing books or reading with a child, most Americans adults (not just parents) who have read both print and e-books think that print books are the better option.

So why do parents want their children exposed to print?  We don’t know exactly. But Pew Research gained some insight from a recent in-person focus groups.

Modeling the Reading Habit: Some parents may want their children to have the same pleasant book-reading experience they remember from when they themselves were children. In fact, one parent from the focus group said that reading printed books himself was important because it helped him model reading habits for his children:

“I’m reading like a book [on a tablet] and my children don’t know if I’m reading a book or if I’m playing on Twitter, so I think it’s important to have the book so that they go, ‘Oh Dad’s reading’ . . . not just, ‘Oh he’s updating his Facebook page.’  I think there is like a difference in that.”

Many parents described positive memories of their early reading habits and library use, memories centered around print books. One said that picking up books from the library was a reward for good behavior:

“My parents were real big on [the library]. It was a treat for us, twice a week after church . . . You behave, you [get] to go to the library and get a book, get two books if you’re real good, read them that week and bring them back.”

A Sensory Experience: Some think that children’s books, which often feature large illustrations and may incorporate various tactile elements, aren’t as well suited to e-ink or touchscreens. And given the relative newness of e-reading and uncertainty around the effects of reading on screens, some parents may simply want to temper the exposure their children have to digital materials. “Somehow, I think it’s different,” Alexandra Tyler told the New York Times. “When you read a book, a proper kid’s book, it engages all the senses. It’s teaching them to turn the page properly. You get the smell of paper, the touch.”

What do you think? Do you prefer some formats for your own reading, and others for reading with children?

Topics: E-reading

  1. Photo of Kathryn Zickuhr

    is a Research Associate at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.


  1. Felipe Soto4 years ago

    Hi Ms Zickuhr,

    I am in the process of deciding whether to publish in print or in Ibook Author or both. And if I publish in both, which should I do first? I still have questions to answer, but your findings have been most helpful. I too love printed material, but animations and 3d objects along with audio can only been shared in the electronic medium.

    Thank you for your research.


  2. Sam Sprott4 years ago

    Good evening Kathryn,
    Having formed Little Kicker Books to publish my wife’s read-aloud Christ centered children’s picture books, I find this subject greatly interesting. As a grandparent I love the experience of reading a good book with a child, but as a publisher I just want our books read to children in whatever form it takes. So that raises the question of where I should put our limited resources..into print or digital. With your research showing over 85% of adults preferring print, that may be where we should stay.
    I’m wondering if any other small and/or self published folks out there have insight?
    Thank you for your research and reporting.

  3. Bill4 years ago

    Young children like a book before bed. It helps them calm down and they can snuggle with the parent. If the book becomes a favorite they will read it over and over again and it will have special meaning for them and even when they see the book on the shelf it will bring back warm memories!

  4. Diana4 years ago

    I’m a mom to a young reader who adores books of all types, print and e-books as well. I was resistant to the latter at first, until my daughter (who struggles with reading) had her first experience reading a sentence aloud with an ebook. Sometimes I think a false “either/or” dichotomy comes up around this topic, as do the folks at Bookboard, an e-book company who has a working mantra: “books aren’t broken.” There is more of a “let’s use all the tools that motivate readers” approach here, as discussed in this piece:…

  5. bamauthor4 years ago

    I prefer e books for reading to children. Definitely agree that holding a printed book is a sensory experience and something that children need modeled in order to develop a love of reading whether it is at home or in school. Few e books can match the beauty of a well illustrated picture book that is enthusiastically read by a loving adult. Yet,there is much value in e books for traveling and ease of accessibility for spur of the moment reading. So I say there is a place for both.

  6. Rick4 years ago

    I have two small children at home and for my wife and I a physical book is key. I think there is too much focus with technology and distractions. If you are reading a physical book you are able to fully delve into the story and become one with it. I personally feel with a tablet, or other electronic form, there is too much distraction at your fingertips to really get into the reading aspect. I feel that reading is critical to my children’s future and I want them to experience it like I did. When they are older they can switch to electronic forms if they choose, but why rush it. The less time a person spends in front of a computer screen, the better as far as I am concerned. For the record, I read on average one book a week and always the old fashioned way.

  7. Art4 years ago

    While I don’t have a kid, I would prefer reading on print sometimes than an e-book as on screen I glaze over it. But an e-book provides quick access rather when you have to go to a library to obtain one.