Books are still better for children than devices

Published on Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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We live in a modern world full of advanced technology with children now exposed to more gadgets and gizmos at a younger age than ever before. The TVs are larger, the toys move and make sounds, and devices are used to play games, music, videos, take photos and more. Even early childhood centres now use apps to log attendance and keep parents updated.

This digital revolution is great for many reasons, but are our children suffering because of it? Well, one area where traditional is still proving better is books. New research printed in the journal Pediatrics (published by the American Academy of Pediatrics) has revealed that when it comes to toddlers, print books are still more beneficial and engaging than e-books.

Observing the effects of new story time

The study, led by University of Michigan C.S Mott Children's Hospital, involved 37 different pairs of parents and toddlers reading from three different book formats – print books, electronic books on a tablet, and enhanced e-books with effects such as sound and animation.

"Shared reading promotes children's language development, literacy and bonding with parents. We wanted to learn how electronics might change this experience," says lead author, Tiffany Munzer M.D., in a press release from the University of Michigan.

The overall result? All the toddlers and parents interacted and verbalised on fewer occasions with e-books than with print books, proving that the traditional print format of stories fosters more quality communication, bonding and engagement between children and adults, which in turn is better for their development.

The important role of story time

According to the researchers, the interactions that happen between parents and carers and young children while reading may appear subtle but are actually far more impactful than you think in terms of child development.

For example, mid-story, a parent may stop and point to a picture of an animal and ask their child "what noise does a dog make?" Parents may also tie a part of the story into something the child has experienced personally, with comments like "Remember when we went to the beach?"

Essentially, reading time is not just about the story itself. It also leads to open-ended questions, such as asking kids what they thought of the book or characters. And according to Munzer, it's these practices with comments and questions that go beyond content, that boost children's expressive language, engagement and literacy.

"Parents strengthen their children's ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children's lived experiences," says Munzer.

"Research tells us that parent-led conversations are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media."

Additionally, nonverbal interactions, including warmth, closeness and enthusiasm during reading time also create positive associations with reading that will likely stick with children as they get older.

The trouble with e-books

The researchers found that while the children and parents still enjoyed the story time regardless of the book format, the key differences when reading e-books compared to print books were:

  • Less engagement and content related conversation – parents asked fewer simple questions and commented less about the storyline.
  • More communication around the technology itself – for example, discussing instructions about the device such as telling children not to push buttons or change the volume.
  • The features and enhancements of the digital books appeared to distract parents and interfere with their ability to engage in guided conversation during reading.

The authors of the study recommend further research to examine specific aspects of tablet-book design that support interaction between parents and children. They also advise that parents who are reading electronic books with toddlers should consider engaging as they would with the print version and minimise the focus on the technology elements of the e-book.

"Reading together is not only a cherished family ritual in many homes but one of the most important developmental activities parents can engage in with their children," says senior author, Jenny Radesky M.D., developmental behavioural paediatrician at Mott.

"Our findings suggest that print books elicit a higher quality parent-toddler reading experience compared with e-books. Paediatricians may wish to continue encouraging parents to read print books with their kids, especially for toddlers and young children who still need support from their parents to learn from any form of media."

What early childhood educators can learn from this research

While the authors of the study didn't discuss the place of e-books in early childhood learning settings, their research indicates that reading to children, particularly from traditional print books, is still extremely beneficial to their development.

Here are a few important reminders that early childhood educators can take away from the new findings:

  • Story time is essential – While we're all aware of the benefits of reading stories to children, make sure that it does remain a focus in your service with a daily scheduled group story time in addition to ad hoc book reading with individual children or smaller groups throughout the day.
  • Favour print books over digital – Don't be tempted to introduce too many audio books, e-books or animated story videos. Keep it simple and ensure that print books are the key reading method for educators and children.
  • Go beyond the story – Remember to constantly engage the children when reading the story by asking them questions about characters or the story, such as what they think will happen next, and relate parts of the story to them as well if possible.
  • Be mindful when using e-books – If you do incorporate e-books into your service, be sure to have educators increase the engagement when reading from them (such as commenting and asking questions), to make them more beneficial for children’s development.

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