Tech & Science

Parents and Toddlers Interact More When Reading Paper Books Versus E-books

Parents and toddlers who read paper books together speak and interact more when compared with those who read e-books, researchers found. 

Reading with a child is a hugely important developmental activity as it helps youngsters learn new words, broadens their knowledge and provides time to bond with loved ones. So scientists wanted to see if parents and children acted differently when they read books together using traditional media versus electronic devices like tablets.

To investigate, the researchers recruited 37 pairs of parents and healthy toddlers between two and three years old. They asked them to read from three different types of media: enhanced electronic books with sound effects or animation; a basic electronic book; and a print book.

First, the pairs were captured as they free-played with toys for five minutes in a laboratory, which was set up to resemble a living room, before reading. The authors documented what the parents and children spoke about as they consumed the books.

Researchers found parents and toddlers spoke more when interacting with a paper book rather than a story on an electronic tablet. What’s more, parents used richer language when using print books compared with tablets, and collaborated more with their children.

But parents were less responsive and children were less engaged with their parents when reading e-books, Munzer said. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.  

Dr. Tiffany Munzer, corresponding author of the study and a pediatric developmental behavioral fellow at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told Newsweek: "One of the most surprising aspects is that these findings held true even when parents and children read tablet books with few distracting enhancements, suggesting it might be the actual tablet device that’s contributing to less conversation and lower levels of collaboration between parents and toddlers."

Munzer pointed out, however, that the study was limited in several ways, including that the team did not test the toddlers’ reading comprehension. "It may not be clear how reading comprehension on a tablet might compare with reading comprehension on a print book,” she said.

The study was also limited by the small sample size, and the fact that the team used only one commercially-available app for the e-books. Future studies should use different types of apps with “more animated features or different bells and whistles,” Munzer said.

So should parents ditch tablets when reading with their children, or is some reading better than none, regardless of the device? 

"Parents and toddlers know how to engage over a book, but when adding a tablet into the mix, it deflects from some of the positive benefits of that shared reading experience," said Munzer.

"That isn’t to say there is no benefit to electronic book reading compared with doing nothing, just less compared with print books. Print books are just better for promoting rich language from their parents and more conversation between parents and children."

Munzer said that parents always know their children best "so they should feel empowered to adjust the reading experience to what they know their children are interested in: even comics and magazines count as reading." 

In 2017, a separate study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that toddlers were more likely to pay attention to and be willing to read when using e-books  compared with children who consumed the same books in print. 

The authors wrote: "One important caveat to our findings is that increased engagement does not always translate into increased learning." 

Last year, a different study also shed light on the apparent benefits of reading to children. The paper, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggested children were less hyperactive at school if their parents read aloud with them. 

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