Digital Natives and Ebooks: Missing the Point

WE BELIEVE that reading widely and reading fluently will give children the reading stamina to deal with more challenging texts they will meet in college, at work and in everyday life. And every child should be able to choose and own the books they want to read for that choice builds literacy confidence—the ability to read, write, and speak about what they know, what they feel, and who they are.

Richard Robinson, Chairman, President and CEO, Scholastic Inc.

The just-released 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report™ conducted by Harrison Group and Scholastic has caused a bit of a stir thanks to one relatively minor data point that’s been highlighted more than any other, perhaps best illustrated by the AP’s misleading headline that reads more like Huffington Post linkbait: “Survey: Children like e-books, parents not so much.

While the study did show a notable interest in reading a book “on a digital device (including computers)” among children aged 9-17, far more relevant was the context of that interest, reading more books for fun, and why that was important.

  • When asked if they would read more books for fun if they had access to eBooks, one-third of kids age 9-17 of kids [sic] said yes, including frequent readers (34%), moderately frequent readers (36%), and even infrequent readers (27%; PAGES 14–16).
  • When asked about the most important outcome of reading books for fun, children age 9–17 say it is to: open up the imagination (43%), be inspired (36%), and to a lesser degree, to gain new information (21%). Parents express similar views (43%, 35%, and 22%, respectively; PAGE 20).

Sparking the imagination and offering inspiration are arguably the more significant takeaways from this study, especially when contrasted with what books, print and digital, are competing with for kids’ attention.

As age increases, the time kids spend reading declines in direct opposition to the time kids spend going online for fun and using a cell phone to text or talk.

The study notes that, “As age increases, the time kids spend reading declines in direct opposition to the time kids spend going online for fun and using a cell phone to text or talk.” While the more social activities (text or talk; online) increase with age, the more solitary activities (video/computer games; reading books) decline. Interestingly, “TV, DVDs and videos” hold their own with each age group, and could arguably be considered social activities, too.

All of them are able to spark the imagination and offer inspiration, but it’s the more social activities that lead the way as they get older, so focusing on an interest in ebooks as a primary takeaway is completely missing the forest for the tree du jour.

As I write this, I’ve been following the tweets coming from The Bookseller‘s Children’s Annual Conference, and it’s been interesting to see how much of the discussion is centering around transmedia, both overtly and otherwise, and how much of the so-called conventional wisdom about “digital natives” is off the mark:

  • RT @thebookseller: #kidsconf trends, @AdrianHon: – 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, codes to register online, play games, immersive exp.
  • RT @thebookseller: Dr Sue Cranmer defining digital natives. Kids born after 1980 always had digital media. #kidsconf
  • RT @Booktrust But… 66% of children (in the US) still want to read books on paper too #kidsconf (Per Scholastic study:
  • RT @cmussi: #kidsconf consumers want to consume content when it fits their needs it is not about technology but behaviours
  • RT @TheBookseller: #kidsconf reading habits of Stardoll users [77m]: where do u go to find out abt books: friends etc but library high %
  • RT @nosycrow: Random House also working w/ Stardoll on Mortal Kiss – pub first online in episodes + inviting comments, blogging #kidsconf
  • RT @nosycrow: Random/Stardoll – multi-language. Fiona Macmillan: “kids are asking when the real book is coming out” #kidsconf

Besides the definition of “digital natives” being debatable — I was born in 1969 and grew up with the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64; my first email address was with CompuServe back when they were numeric — the idea that they are some monolithic group that eschews the analog world is ridiculous.

Last week, I wrote about the latest findings from TalkTrack, an ongoing study conducted by market research firm Keller Fay Group, which specializes in word-of-mouth (WOM) and noted that “85% of teen brand WOM that takes place offline, fully 75% occurs face-to-face/in person.”

Besides noting that the vast majority of teenagers’ word-of-mouth recommendations occur offline as opposed to only “3% through social networking sites,” the results were also surprisingly similar to that of consumers overall, with one notable exception: “the school environment is a close second (28%), whereas for the general public, the work environment is a distant second (12%).”

As the old saying goes, “Kids are people, too.”

It’s not clear whom @cmussi was quoting in the tweet referenced above (it might have been Matt Locke, acting head of cross platform, Channel 4), but I wholeheartedly agree with the point being made and it also happens to be the fundamental idea of transmedia: It’s not about the technology or the format, it’s about giving readers multiple options to consume the content they’re interested in.

Two in three children say they will always want to read books printed on paper even though there are eBooks available. Kids who already have experience reading eBooks are just as likely as kids who have not had experience eReading to agree.

2010 Kids & Family Reading Report™

The Scholastic report offers a lot of compelling data and is worth reading in its entirety. While focusing on ebooks, the generation gap, and a zero-sum scenario that ends with the “death of print” is great for pundits’ page views and speaking gigs, as a strategy for publishers, it’s a non-starter.

The real opportunity for publishers in the digital age can be summed up in one simple idea: curate and market great content, and offer engaging experiences, in whatever formats the community you serve desires.

5 thoughts on “Digital Natives and Ebooks: Missing the Point

  1. Writers are going to have to create more depth in their stories for multiple types of mediums. I think it is an incredible creative opportunity. Now all of the notes, Character bios, and short stories have somewhere to go. I am huge fan of Tolkein and one of things he had done was have tons of unpublished material that was a history of Middle Earth and is that material that made the story come to life for Tolkein and can be very entertaining in different types of media.

    1. Glad I got my tentative credit right, Matt! And that’s a great list of 5 things; very thought-provoking, especially this: “I remember the first dotcom crash, and it was just after that when things got really interesting.” Totally agree.

    2. it’s the stuff of chain e-mails – when was the last time you played solitaire with a real deck of cards? kids today have always had a push-button phone, have always turned on the TV with a button from across the room – but throwing out terms like “Digital Native” just tries to lend legitimacy to a temporary cultural trend. Remember when digital watches were the rage?

      No one is born with chips implanted (yet), so no one is digitally “native.” You could just as well call me “TV Native” or my father “Automobile Native” (there were still horse-drawn carriages in Manhattan when he was a child). Terms like this for children are thought up by grown ups to say, “it wasn’t like this when I was a kid.”

      And anyone who thinks ebooks are magically going to get more kids to read more, just by their virtue of being digital is missing the point. I’ve bought books based on a movie I liked (yes, book based on movie) – digital media is just another opportunity to engage a consumer of your content.

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