The Death of Print Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Parents will help keep e-readers from completely winning for now

Remember books? They were those pieces of paper with words printed on them packed in between two, sometimes, handsome covers. People bought them, and people borrowed them, but, in any case, people used to read them. And then came screensSix years into the furious rise of mobile, half of American adults own a smartphone; over a third own a tablet

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Now, I'm joking about the end of books, but it's easy and tempting to project that screens will continue their onslaught on words and paper-bound books will go the way of papyrus. But if you take a hard look at the data (no matter what device you use) it's not the end of print. Not by a long shot.

Still, there hasn't been a more perfect technology for capturing the hopes, fears, and neuroses of new parents than the tablet. It's why people aged 35 to 44 have scooped up tablets faster than any other age group -- even faster than tech-savvy twentysomethings. As Hanna Rosin detailed in her Atlantic cover story, touchscreens are so intuitive that babies can use them and learn at younger ages than we thought possible -- or babies can use them and use them and use them and lose out on other skills. We just don't know what this kind of avalanche of stimuli does to young brains. All we know is we're raising a generation that, as CBS points out, sometimes finds magazines more baffling than iPads.

Parents, of course, can't not know. Or, if they really can't, then they don't want to take any chances. And that's why it's not at all surprising that the vast, vast majority of parents prefer reading printed books to their young children. As you can see below, Pew Research found that 94 percent of parents think it's important to read print books to their children -- with 82 percent saying it's very important.


Print demand isn't going away soon. Young parents want books. Older people want books. And so do some kids. A recent survey of children between eight and 16 years old in the United Kingdom found that, yes, 52 percent prefer e-readers, but 32 percent would still rather read print. Now, it might be that the print market becomes more of a niche one: books for young children, books for girls (who tend to read both more and more in print than boys), and books for older folks. In other words, it will be the "luxury" market of reading. But, of course, the real test will come in the next few years when we see what kids who have been using tablets since before they could walk prefer to read.

Print is in a long, slow decline that feels like a death spiral, but isn't quite so. For now, at least, the end of print is a long way off, even if kids these days can't figure out how to turn the page.

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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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