Books Fight Back

Should verhelp-the-wolf-is-comingy small children be using apps? Are they genuinely educational? Or are they meaningless coloured light and movement (to their eyes), with little or no educational value, often used as babysitters and leading all too easily to minimal parental involvement? There will be vociferous claims on both sides of the debate, of course.

I have young grand-daughter, nearly 20 months old. She is not allowed to play with smart phones or iPads as they easily grab too much of her time and attention – they are clearly addictive. This is not a rule set by 30-something, John-Lewis-style parents. My daughter is 20; she had the baby when she was 18. She is a digital native. She knows that she gave up too much of her own adolescence to screen time and is determined that her own daughter will use screen-based technology in moderation and appropriately, as she hopes she will use other things that might be damaging in moderation (sugar, coffee, alcohol, carbon-hungry activities). This baby is one of the first post-digital generation, born to parents for whom the web existed before they did and who learned to read by reading the menus on games programs as much as by reading books. The first generation for whom screen-based technology has no more of a wow factor than does a toy car or a tricycle, and the first with no digital divide between them and their parents.

We don’t like uncomfortable truths, and it’s an uncomfortable truth that we have raised a generation of screen-addicted – and now touchscreen-addicted – young adults. There have been horrendous knock-on effects, such as the endemic sexual violence, and the pervasive disregard for young women and their rights over their bodies. No one could have predicted that when we were all being amazed by cheesy websites with moving gifs, but it’s where it went. I am anything but a technology-refusnik. An early adopter involved in the emergent technologies from the 80s, I was there, designing programs for toddlers in the 1990s. I put my hand up. Guilty as charged. What was a novelty in 1993 is now an all-day, everyday phenomenon. And it’s not always good.

Maybe showing your toddler a storybook app for 20 minutes a day does no harm. I doubt it does any good, but not everything has to do us good. But I don’t think children who are not allowed touchscreens before the age of three will suffer.

So much for the children. What about publishing? There are picture book publishers who worry about the inroads apps are making into their market, and others who – like Nosy Crow – embrace it and make good products. Apps are not, in general, profitable, though. Perhaps that should be ‘yet’, but we don’t know. To make a good app is expensive and people don’t expect to pay much for apps. A lot of investment is needed, and then a good deal of time and faith and holding of the nerve. Can books compete? Yes – as long as parents are prepared to invest time in their children, reading with them. (Children take a lot of investment, a good deal of time, faith and holding of the nerve, too, but for a much more valuable outcome.)


In case you are the keeper of a baby you don’t want to expose to too much corrosive touchscreen time, here’s a book that is a kind of low-tech app. I found it in Foyles the other day and bought it for my grand-daughter. It is astonishingly innovative. She was a little puzzled at first, but soon got it. A child more used to iPads would get it much more quickly, I think. It’s simply interactive, with instructions to turn the page quickly, to tilt and shake the book, to turn it around – the familiar swipe/til /shake fare of the tablet app. It’s printed on firm board, so it can take all the physical treatment.

It’s only £6.99 and it’s great; buy it instead of an app. You’ll even get some exercise doing the shaking.
Anne Rooney
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