A one-year-old digital native, growing up among touch screen devices, attempts to make print "interact."

At The Bookseller’s recent Children’s Conference in London (25 Sept 2014) we heard, direct from each source, the results of two recent studies that offer compelling insights into reading behaviors among purported “digital natives.” The first, by Voxburner, focused on the 16-24 year-old demographic; the other, by Nickelodeon UK, studied 6-11 years olds. Taken together, these studies make me wonder if children’s publishers should be wary of basing future production decisions on the tastes and habits of today’s teens. Rather, I find the data more instructive in helping us anticipate what the next generation of readers will be expecting from us tomorrow.

The Voxburner data reveal that 16-24 year olds largely prefer print to electronic editions of their favorite books. They find eBooks too expensive. They love to smell pages and run their fingers along spines. To them an eBook does nothing to help flaunt their status as a reader: books that live hidden in electronic devices cannot be displayed for all to see on a shelf; and the book one is seen to be carrying is a huge identity statement for this age group, it turns out. Respondents also said they “resent being enslaved by technology,” causing some publishers to speculate that because teens already spend so much of their day on screens, reading for pleasure may mean getting away from electronics.

When Porter Anderson asked, “What kind of message publishers might see in some of these data as to how to approach the 16-24s' market?” Head researcher, Luke Mitchell, responded, “Perhaps not go wild about innovation and formats, look at content 'likes' and trends instead.”

But these readers are aging out of kidlit and into the NA and Adult markets. So are their behaviors even relevant to children’s publishing? What’s more, I suggest that these readers, while young, are not “digital natives” at all.

To me, true “digital natives” are those children who emerged as readers into a world already awash with touch screens, like the toddler in the video above. Their earliest interactions with the written word may just as likely have taken place with a print book as a tablet. If the average child begins to read at five, and we peg the era of the touch screen to the release of the first iPhone in 2007, that would make our oldest digital natives approximately 12 years old today, if born into a home of early tech adopters. Most “digital natives” are younger.

As the mother of an 18-year-old who was devouring 700-page Harry Potter books by the age of 7, I can attest, first hand, that while she is tech savvy and spends much of her day connected to a screen, she is not a “digital native.” She’s just a few years too old.

It would seem wise, therefore, for publishers to look to the younger set for a truer indicator of future reading preferences, trends, and behavior.

Nickelodeon UK’s study, called Me, My Selfie & I, looked for insights into the impact of the digital world on our youngest citizens. One thousand 6-11 year olds participated in the study. Fifty-five percent of them have three or more screens in the home, including a tablet. The data reveal that these children travel seamlessly across their devices and have developed quite sophisticated expectations about what content experiences they will encounter depending on the size and type of screen. TV, for example, is associated with entertainment; PCs are connected to exploration and socialization; tablets and mobile devices are for relaxing and learning, i.e., for activities such as reading.

These data, I believe, paint a very different picture of the future of reading habits of our rising MG and YA readers. It’s a future that’s right around the corner and one that children’s publishers, in particular, must reckon with today if the act of reading is to compete with other screen-based content tomorrow.

In a recent blog post penned in defense of the future of BookApps, Kate Wilson, MD of Nosy Crow, stated that publishers have a responsibility to be wherever children are. "If children are spending a lot of time with touch-screen devices,” she writes, “I think that we should want reading to be part of the entertainment they find there.”

I agree. We must provide quality content where our audiences want it most. It is in both our best interest as well as theirs to be wherever they are. And where they are differs, these latest research studies reveal, whether you were born before or after the invention of the touch screen.