Parental-child interaction in reading to toddlers differs between electronic and print books

May 8, 2019  |  General
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Over the past decade child development experts have produced an increasingly large body of evidence on the dangers of too much screen time for children, especially preschoolers. These include increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other learning problems. The consensus opinion is that the rapidly changing images, coupled with the passive nature of the experience, are not good for the developing brain, and the brain continues to develop well into late childhood. This is especially the case for preschoolers. A potential problem is when parents use the screen, whether a television or computer screen, as a sort of babysitter. Now there is nothing wrong with this for short periods, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has offered guidelines on how much is too much. It’s a good resource. The AAP and child development experts particularly recommend reading books to toddlers as a way of fostering the back-and-forth interactions that promote emotional and cognitive development. But now, of course, we have a hybrid — the book on a screen, the ebook. Many people I know do their reading these days almost exclusively on the screen. My own books sell more electronic versions than paper ones. What do we know about reading to your child on an ebook? Is the experience the same as an actual physical book?

Some previous research suggested when preschoolers read electronic books with parents, parents offer less dialogue, and talk is often focused on the technology rather than the book contents. What about other interactions besides talking, the more subtle things? A recent study in the journal Pediatrics offers some information about this. The authors conducted a videotaped study of 37 parent-toddler pairs reading on the different book formats and observed what happened using some standardized criteria for shared positive affect and collaborative reading. They found that the pairs reading an ebook verbalized less to each other and collaborated less, meaning pausing and interacting with each other. These differences were statistically highly significant, with p values of < 0.001 for those of you who like statistics.

For myself, I don’t think these differences are necessarily intrinsic to the medium. It’s certainly possible to be as interactive with your child with an ebook as with a physical, paper one. But for whatever reason parents don’t do this. Perhaps it’s because our own interactions with computers and iPads are somewhat passive and self-centered, different than jointly with our child holding an open book in the lap. But whatever the reason, it gives evidence for the benefit of the well-worn and much loved copies of favorite children’s books we recall. Certainly my daughter’s dog-eared copy of Curious George was like that.

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