Thursday, September 1, 2011

Part 4: Glowing Screens As Zombie-Makers, and Other Digital Media Fears

In this fourth and final installment of our conversation with Patrick Cox, who teaches Children's Literacies, a Rutgers University course about learning to read in the digital age, we address attitudes about digital books and their utility. A recent Christian Science Monitor article dismissed narrated picture book apps as an annoying diversion to keep kids occupied at restaurants. While I like to rope off family talking time from screen time, I don't have a problem with a book in whatever form it might take. But there are many, like the Christian Science Monitor writer, who disagree. Giving a child an e-reader "walls them off from the social connections that are part of why we go to restaurants in the first place."

DotMomming: Picture book apps have come under recent criticism as just another toy to divert impatient kids.  I think that is completely overlooking their value: How can picture book apps best be used in early literacy development? I like to see my six-year-old work his way through them on his own, as he deciphers the words solo and experiences the interactive surprises nestled into the book for himself. There is also a school of thought devoted to shared engagement between adult teacher and child learner. What is your take?

Patrick Cox: The author makes one of many assumptions people make about picture book apps and other forms of digital literature: once a child gets their hands on an electronic device, he or she will cease to engage with other human beings. This is another age-old argument. Similar moral panics have erupted in the past around books – that too much reading is bad for children, is somehow unnatural, cuts them off from “real” communication, and makes them lazy or “soft.” 

The truth is, and I think most people know it, sometimes kids engage with books in interaction with parents, and sometimes kids engage with books on their own. What seems to be a difficult leap to make is that the same holds true for digital reading. The current “new thing” is digital reading in many different forms (many of which are enjoyed by adults), so the current moral panic is that the dreaded glowing screen is turning our children into zombies who don’t know how to communicate. It’s an easy, breezy topic for a magazine column or discussion board post.

But the question isn’t, “What are we to do in the face of this debilitating technology?” but rather, “How can we use it to enable our children (and us!) to communicate better?” Apps, like books, are merely tools, and we have more control over how we use them than they have power to control us. A recorded narrator’s voice needn’t eliminate parent interaction with a child while reading. Parent and child can enjoy together, can still talk about the text and images, a child can ask questions about the content of the app, a child can later relive the story through imaginative play. . . Indeed, a child can engage with an app alone, and an app can keep a child busy or quiet at a restaurant. . . which is also just like a book.

I think shared engagement is absolutely essential, not only for learning to read but for parent-child bonding! These technologies and formats are as new to me as they are to my four-year-old-son: we both saw a picture book app for the first time together! And we figured it out together – how to use it, what we like about it, what we don’t like about it, what we’ll use again. The new platform hasn’t kept us from engaging with one another while reading. It’s given us something else to utilize as we engage with one another.

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