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What's the Story With E-books at Bedtime?

When it comes to reading with your children, research suggests the printed page is better than a screen.

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

If you have children, here’s what you have to do. You have to feed them. You have to clothe them. You have to love them. And if you can, you should try to read them a bedtime story.

Parents are often inundated with advice, much of which is often wrong and self-contradictory. But reading with your children is probably one of the most meaningful and beneficial things you can do. As the American Academy of Pediatrics recently pointed out in a policy statement, “it builds language, literacy and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”

But more and more reading is being done with electronic devices rather than with actual books. A study in Pediatrics found that in a survey of 350 children, 96.6 per cent used mobile devices and most started before age one. By age two, most children used a device daily and by age four most had their own device. Parents usually gave their children an electronic device when doing housework, to keep their children calm or at bedtime.

The appeal and convenience of phones, tablets and all the electronic paraphernalia that clutter our lives is obvious. A friend of mine once joked she did not know how people raised children before smart phones. But it’s unclear whether they are actually good for us. There are concerns that the growing use of devices is contributing to more sedentary behaviour among children who should be playing outside rather than watching cartoons on YouTube. For this and many other reasons, the Canadian Pediatric Society put out guidelines in 2017 that recommended no screen time for children under two, and only one hour per day for children under five.

The question I’ve always struggled with is whether these devices can be used for educational purposes, like reading an ebook. Intuitively, I would have thought that it was the act of reading and spending time with your child that was important, and that there would be no significant difference between paper books and ebooks.

But a recent study in Pediatrics seems to argue against that. Researchers videotaped parent-children pairs as they read together from print and ebooks. When reading from ebooks, there was less engagement and interaction between parent and child. Many ebooks have enhanced texts that read the story aloud. With these books, parents did less of the reading and ceded the narrative to the device.

The real power of reading is the interaction between parent and child. While reading a book, parents can ask questions, provide context and prompt children to read along. The study suggests this happens less with ebooks, and the quality of the parent-child interaction decreases.

This time together is important because it helps children to learn. Phones, tablets, TVs and other devices are very good at holding the attention of toddlers but may cause a video deficit effect. Toddlers younger than two may have difficulty transferring information from digital media because they may not be capable of extrapolating a 2D picture on a screen to the real-life 3D world. In short, they may be watching the screen, but they may not be absorbing anything from it.

It’s always tempting to jump on the bandwagon with any new item of technology, but just because something is new does not necessarily mean it is better. The reality is we tend to be more passive in front of our screens, and the interactivity young children need to learn might be easier to achieve with a regular book than ebook.

Clearly, we have to teach children to be technologically literate and help them learn how to use these devices, but perhaps that should wait until they reach the ripe old age of five.


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