IN A restaurant recently my sister and I were shocked to see a toddler aged no more than 18 months, in a high chair, competently swiping his finger across an iPad.

“We let him use it so we can have a meal in peace,” his parents unashamedly told us, “It keeps him amused for hours."

They went on to tell us how, in a different restaurant, their child had been given a picture book and had tried to swipe the cover, becoming frustrated when it did not move.

We praised the child, while in fact we were horrified. It was clear from our conversation that he had never been introduced to books.

Now research has revealed that children are so hooked on iPads and smartphones that they are trying to ‘swipe’ with their fingers when given books to read.

Members of the National Union of Teachers said the disturbing development was emerging among children in nursery and reception classes and was likely to be a result of youngsters being given parents’ iPads at an early age rather than traditional children’s books.

It’s a worrying trend - another study by the National Literacy Trust revealed how parents are actually being encouraged to turn to iPads and Kindles to get boys interested in reading.

It found that children aged three to five often read for longer and had a better grasp of vocabulary when accessing touch-screen technology.

Tablet computers, it discovered, had a particular impact on groups that are traditionally most resistant to reading - particularly boys and infants from poor families. It also found that nine out of ten three-to five-year-olds had access to e-readers at home and the number of nurseries and childminders using the devices had rocketed.

Touch-screen technology ‘could be a vital new weapon to combat low literacy in key target groups’, the report said.

A silver lining perhaps, but it is still a sad state of affairs. The number of homes I have visited where there isn’t a book in sight is staggering. It is not unusual to see bookshelves stocked solely with DVDs and computer games.

Across the country efforts are being made to bring children into contact with books - the brilliant book-gifting scheme Canterbury Imagine in Bradford is one success story.

It is not easy to get children to read, even for those with plenty of books in the home and no electronic distractions. I grew up surrounded by books. With bookshelves in virtually every room, I was always reaching for one book or another and as a teenager my head was rarely out of one. I remember in my teens, devouring Thomas Hardy novels, followed by Jane Austen, then Nevil Shute, the Brontes and later Charles Dickens. Yet my brother and sister were seldom seen with their noses in books.

My daughters have also grown up with easy access to books. We read to them from an early age and encouraged them to pick up books, but even with such efforts, their interest was lacklustre. As teenagers I desperately wanted them to read Thomas Hardy and bought some of his works on DVD to fuel their interest. It didn’t work. My youngest daughter enjoyed The Mayor of Casterbridge on film but has yet to open the novel.

As they have grown older they do seem to be reading the odd book - nowhere near as many as I read at their age.

Books are such a part of our lives and history. They are friendly and comforting - the touch of the pages and the ease at which you can take them anywhere, to bed, to read in the bath…

To alienate children from them is terrible.

It’s not just children who are shunning books. Adults too seem to be reading on tablets and e-readers. I’m often the only person on the train to work, sitting with a book. It used to be interesting to see what other people were reading, now that’s impossible.