Paper Books Beat Tablets for Parent-Child Interactions, Study Finds

Dennis Thompson

Dennis Thompson

Published on September 30, 2019

mother reading to a child

MONDAY, Sept. 30, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Parents seeking quality reading time with their toddlers would do well to choose an old-fashioned book over a newfangled e-reader, a new study argues.

Parents and kids appear to have a better shared experience when they're reading a book together than when they read with a tablet, researchers report.

Parent and child tended to tussle over the tablet, explained lead researcher Dr. Tiffany Munzer, a fellow in developmental behavior pediatrics at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

"In this study, print books were great for promoting an environment that was rich with reciprocity, but the tablet appeared to create some conflict between parents and toddlers who were both trying to control the tablet," Munzer said.

This study isn't the first by Munzer to raise questions regarding the value of e-books when reading to young children. Another study published in Pediatrics last March looked at verbal interactions when parent and child shared an e-book.

In that study, parents and toddlers talked more when reading print books, and were more likely to hold the book or turn pages together. Toddlers presented with an e-book became focused on tapping or swiping the screen and didn't pay as much attention to either the story being told or the parent reading to them.

Munzer's latest study focused on nonverbal signs of "social reciprocity" -- the back-and-forth exchanges that happen between parents and children when they're sharing a task.

This act of sharing "creates moments of joy, and is the foundation for child development. It is how children learn new words, gain emotional competence, and builds on their problem-solving abilities," Munzer said. "Social reciprocity is how relationships are nurtured and is important for our future generation's development and achievement."

In the latest study, Munzer and her University of Michigan colleagues observed 37 parent-toddler pairs reading together in a laboratory using three different book formats -- print, basic e-readers and enhanced e-books on tablets.

The enhanced e-readers contained extra elements like sound effects and animation. The basic e-books allowed for swiping to turn the pages and tapping illustrations to elicit the appearance of words, but there was no auto-narration or sound effects.

The three books were all from Mercer Mayer's "Little Critter" series, and were similar in length and reading difficulty.

The researchers found differences in nonverbal communication from both parents and children when engaging with a tablet, Munzer said.

"Children used the tablet books in a more solitary or independent fashion, which prevented parents from easily viewing or accessing the book and made it harder for parents to communicate with their children," Munzer said.

Both the toddlers and their parents also tried to exert control over the experience when reading with a tablet. Rather than working together, they would push each other's hand away or move the tablet away from each other. Toddlers might even try grabbing the tablet.

"These behaviors may interfere with the back-and-forth engagement between parents and children," Munzer said.

The findings were published Sept. 30 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Pediatricians often stress the beneficial aspects of reading with your toddler, including better language development and more positive social interactions, said Dr. David Fagan, vice chair of pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

These findings show that "in the 21st century we as pediatricians need to think about technology as it pertains to reading," Fagan said. "We can't assume that reading with your child equates to sharing a book.

"It seems that tablets are perceived by children as solitary devices to be controlled by them, and their use in shared reading may promote negative interactions," Fagan continued. "So, the message to parents about reading needs to emphasize using traditional books, and if parents choose to read on a tablet with their child they need to be aware of the behaviors described in this study."

Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics for Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in Huntington, N.Y., said "more studies of this kind are clearly warranted."

Grosso was reminded of a science fiction story by Isaac Asimov while reading this study.

"The author described an advanced technology that involved a user interface that allowed one to modulate the flow of information from the device using nothing other than one's eyes and mind control," Grosso said. "The author was describing, of course, a book. Books -- and parents reading to children -- are as valuable for children now as they ever were."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about reading to your toddler.

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