April 6, 2018

“A book? What’s that? It’s made of trees, you say? Can I at least swipe on it?”


No swiping here…

As you read this post, written by a currently very-depressed-publishing-professional, on your computer screen, tablet, or smartphone, the future of book-loving children everywhere hangs in the balance.

According to Bronwen Weatherby of the Bristol Post, a disturbing trend has been emerging in nursery and reception (that’s British for Pre-K, yanks) classes, with teachers and librarians noticing children are struggling with physical books. They simply don’t know how to turn the pages: they have been so thoroughly exposed to touch-screen technology that their go-to gesture is to swipe left.

This was brought up at the British National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Brighton this week. Jennifer Bhambri-Lyte, a delegate and former teacher from North Somerset, said, “Sharing a book brings parents together for precious moments, and I’ve taught both nursery and reception and I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left.”

The issue came up as part of a wider discussion about libraries. It’s no secret that the library scene in the UK is in pretty dire shape. Camilla Turnercovering the conference for the Telegraph, reported that around nine hundred libraries have disappeared in the last ten years with more under threat. This has led to a drop in professional librarians and a ninety-three percent increase in volunteers working in libraries, “resulting in an erosion of a longstanding knowledge and skill base which threatens the quality of the service they provide.”

This is particularly distressing for those of us who spent much of our childhoods perusing the shelves of our local libraries, feeding our burgeoning love of reading. As Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, said at the conference:

“Libraries are an essential part of school and community life and as relevant now as they ever have been. Tragically, over the past decade the number of school libraries staffed by qualified librarians has declined rapidly.

“Reading for pleasure is a skill for life and is consistently shown to be one of the most powerful springboards for children’s engagement with learning, thinking and creating.

“The Government needs to put libraries, books and reading for pleasure centre-stage in its vision for children and young people.”

An aggressively digitizing world certainly could be contributing to library decline. Sarah Knapton reported for the Telegraph last year that British children under the age of three are spending, on average, forty-four minutes a day using tablets and smartphones. The consequences of this screen exposure varies from study to study. According to Knapton, the National Literacy Trust has previously encouraged parents to allow young boys in particular to use iPads and Kindles, due to concern about young children not reading enough. But researchers from the University of Toronto and the Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto have warned of the dangers: a report studying nearly 900 children between six months and two years old suggested that, for every thirty minutes of screen time a child is exposed to, the risk of delayed speech increases by forty-nine percent. And a report published in the journal Scientific Reports found that for every hour touch-screen devices were used during the day, a child’s sleep time was reduced by sixteen minutes.

We can’t hide from technology—and we shouldn’t—but there has to be more to life than endlessly staring at pixelated screens and mindlessly swiping. As Bhambri-Lyte put at the conference:

“Kindles and iPads are wonderful things, but many of my friends talked about the smell of a book, finding tickets and receipts that someone had left as a bookmark, echoes of all the people that had been there before.”

Which is part of why libraries are so important. Apparently, NUT is planning to campaign for properly funded libraries. Let’s hope it has some impact in the UK. And let’s not let kids fall out of love with real-life books and turn into digital zombies.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.