Remember the unique smell of books and paper that greeted you the moment you stepped in the library? And the shelves and shelves of stories both real and fictional, promising hours of distraction from “real” life? How about your favorite book store? So many possibilities to choose from, it was hard to decide. And there’s the feel of a book in your hands, the weight and substance of it. No batteries or electronic cables to contend with. No blue light burning into your retinas, disturbing your sleep and fracturing your ability to concentrate.

If your kids are becoming digital zombies, addicted to the instant gratification offered by their various “plugged in” devices, it may be time to return to the joys of reading an actual physical book.

It Started with Email

Back in the early days of email, it was a special little thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!” and to see that the mailbox flag was up and an envelope was peeking out. Paper mail was boring. Or at least it was common. Cards, letters, announcements, invitations, bills, advertisements… they were ordinary. Gradually all of these communiques stopped arriving in the U.S. mail and were all delivered “paperless” and “digitally”. We’ve come full circle and are now at the point where an actual handwritten note or letter that appears in your physical mailbox (when you remember to check it) is an unexpected delight. When someone takes the time to actually hand write something, fold it up, stuff it in an envelope, buy postage and mail it to you, you treasure it more than a dozen e-cards that took 10 seconds and a few mouseclicks to send.

A similar transformation has happened with books. In the first 10 months of 2020, ebook sales registered nearly a billion dollars. With a “b”. Audiobooks have also increased tremendously and in the same time period reached sales of $56.9 million. Downloaded audio is ten times that amount at $553.6 million.

The good news is that physical paper books, both hardback and paperback, are still outselling their digital counterparts with hardback revenues for the first 10 months of 2020 at $2.6 billion, and paperbacks at $2.1 billion.

The Effect of the Pandemic and Online School

Many families have struggled with balancing computer time and other activities, especially since quarantine and lockdowns are severely restricting options for kids. Adding to that, many children are required to spend hours a day in front of a computer, tablet, or other digital device instead of attending school in person. Parents who have been trying to limit their child’s time online are now finding that they have to force their children to spend more time online.

A study by the National Institutes of Health found that children who spent more than two hours a day using screens scored lower on language and thinking tests. Some children who spent more than seven hours a day of screen time actually experienced physical changes to their brain structure, affecting critical thinking and reasoning.

According to EdSource, children ages 8-12 in the U.S. spend four to six hours a day watching or using screens on average, and teens spend up to nine hours. This is exacerbated with additional requirements for school and homework that has to be completed online, due to school closings.

Offering an Alternative

Children who are oversaturated with screen time need a break. If your local library is open, a weekly visit is a free way to introduce (or reintroduce) the joy of reading a physical book to your children, regardless of age. If that’s not an option where you live, you can always contact your local bookstore and order books that they can ship to you or you can pick up curbside. A quick online search reveals that there are many sources for discount and bargain books you can order. There are even sources for free books for kids. This list from The Penny Hoarder includes free physical books, PDF copies you can download and print, and ebooks.

The Little Free Library is the world’s largest book-sharing movement and now has over 100,000 book-sharing boxes worldwide. Their motto is “Take a Book – Share a Book” and they encourage book-sharing in all types of communities. To see if there is one near you, check their world map. These little library boxes in Albuquerque, New Mexico are made from converted newspaper vending boxes, built by Bob Shipley, with instructions on how to do it yourself. Many communities also informally set up shelves and racks in public areas that encourage the same kind of book-sharing as the Little Free Library, and a phone call to your city or Chamber of Commerce could point you to their locations.

Encouraging a love of reading is a gift you can give to your child that will pay off their whole life, and giving them a break from the digital onslaught will benefit their minds, their eyesight, and their psychological health. For a list of the benefits of reading a printed book as opposed to digital, check out this list from ReviewThis. This gift-giving season, consider adding to or starting a library of physical books for your child. And yourself!