|Portrait of a Boy (1790) by William Beechey*|
"From earliest toddlerhood, he had been chasing after electronic gadgets with all his might, resisting the protestations of adults who insisted that smartphones and computers were not toys. But he also loved books, so I decided to seek out picture books about modern technology to help distract his attention from actual screens and buttons. Or so I told myself, but clearly my motives were mixed. Even though, like many parents, I imposed strict limits on screen time, I also wanted to encourage his interest, as I would have done had he been fascinated by dinosaurs, music, or some other, more socially sanctioned subject."After reading a selection of children's picture books about technology, she is "disappointed to discover how anxious these narratives are, how frequently they characterize modern machinery and even science itself as a menace to society and personal well-being." Since electronica is so clearly a part of the world our children are growing up in, wouldn't it be nice if books helped them think through their relationships with devices rather than simply demonize them?
William Gleason's "Goodnight iPad: Children's Literature in a Digital Age" covers some of the same books that Gubar examines, while also summarizing some of the mixed messages that have emerged so far from studies of tech and reading in children's lives. Gleason quotes an article in Time in Dec. 2011 describing one study:
“Instead of talking with their children about the content of the books, parents ended up spouting ‘do this, don’t do that’ directives about how to use the devices. All this chatter may interfere with comprehension. When Parish-Morris tested how well children understood the stories on electronic devices, the e-book users did significantly worse than those who sat with their parents reading print. Parents may have interrupted more often because it was hard to get used to the device or too many images beckoned to be clicked. Either way, the kids ended up with ‘a jumbled version of the story in their brains,’ [Parish-Morris] said.”On the other hand, for some struggling readers, digital mediation seems to improve literacy more quickly than traditional methods. So far, there doesn't seem to be enough data to generalize broadly about what the rise of tech means for children's reading.
Both Gubar and Gleason discuss Press Here by Herve Tullet as a picture book that playfully alludes to the buttons of our electronic devices yet remains magical in its book-ness. Printed books are themselves, of course, a kind of technology. As a new form of technology when they first began appearing in eighteenth-century England, children's books were promoted by booksellers as revolutionary for their unique appeal to children's fancies and denounced by skeptics as objects that could undermine traditional modes of education, distracting children from the habits of mind they needed to cultivate (memorization and recitation, for example), concentrating children's reading on frivolous topics. The two sides of the debate should sound familiar to us. Just as today's parents often control how and when children use electronic devices, eighteenth-century parents sometimes controlled access to children's books (which were expensive status-objects), keeping them in cabinets and doling them out for prescribed reading sessions. It amuses me to find that my attitude to electronic technologies mirrors that of the eighteenth-century cultural commentators who were so anxious about children's literature, a genre I love.
*Picture source: Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection.
Further reading: The Child Reader: 1700-1840 by M.O. Grenby (Cambridge University Press, 2011)