How children’s e-books are ruining storytime

Once upon a time, some researchers studied whether parents and toddlers got more quality time out of reading e-books or print books together. And they found that kids and parents talk and interact less when swiping through a story on a screen than they do by turning traditional pages.

The University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital watched 37 parent-toddler pairs page through print books, basic electronic books on a tablet, as well as enhanced e-books on tablets that featured animation and sound effects (like a picture of a seagull that squawked when the child tapped on it.) And the parents and toddlers (children ages 2 or 3 in the study) not only interacted with each other less with both types of e-books than they did with the print books; when they did speak, they were more likely to talk about the device than they were about the story.

What’s more, the things that parents said while reading e-books together were more likely to be negative, like “don’t push that button” or “don’t change the volume.”

By comparison, parents and tots chattered more frequently over the print books, and their conversations were more likely to be positive and to discuss the story, or to push the action forward by thinking about how it related to the child’s life. For example, if there was a chicken featured in the story, the parents were more likely to start asking their kids open-ended questions like, “What sound does a chicken make?” or, “Remember the time we went to the zoo?” while reading the print books than they were sharing the e-books.

And these book club-style discussions are key to honing a toddler’s language skills. “That really reinforces the child’s expressive language development, and engages the child a little more in reading the story,” Dr. Tiffany Munzer, a fellow in development behavioral pediatrics at Mott who led the study, told MarketWatch. “And this helps expand a child’s world from what they know and what they are comfortable with by adding another layer of complexity and depth to it.”

Research suggests the device distracts parents and kids from talking about the story.

But the tablets kept the parents — in this study, anyway — from having those kinds of enriching and educational conversations with their kids — including the upgraded e-books that had animated features and sounds intended to bring the stories to life. “The distracting enhancements might have led parents to talk more about the technology itself, and less about the story content and relating it back to the child’s life,” Munzer mused.

Early education expert Christine Kyriakakos Martin, author of “You’ve Got This! Keys To Effective Parenting For The Early Years,” agreed. “Holding a book and turning the pages will improve the interaction and bonding between a parent and child,” she said. “(But) an e-book can be more visually stimulating, which distracts a child from their parent and the message a parent is trying to share.”

While children are being exposed to screens at earlier ages — Common Sense Media reports that toddlers ages 2 to 4 spend two hours and 40 minutes on screens each day, and kids ages 5 to 8 spend nearly 3 hours (two hours and 58 minutes) on screens daily — they’re still more likely to get their bedtime stories from actual books.

The $2.3 billion children’s book market is expected to grow 0.9% each year through 2022, IBISWorld reports. But e-books only accounted for 3.7% of children’s book sales in 2018, according to the Association of American Publishers — and kids’ e-book sales were down 3.6% from the year before, while children’s print sales were up about 3%. (That reflects overall e-book sales for adults, kids and teens, alike, as traditional publishers sold 10% fewer e-books in 2017 compared with the year before, according to PubTrack Digital data.)

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Most of the parents that MarketWatch spoke with also favored print books for their toddlers.

Margaret Breuninger, a mother of two children under 4, counts at least 75 books in their growing library already. And she notes that sharing a book with a toddler is much easier than sharing a tablet.

“It’s fun to look at the pictures and point without worrying about getting finger prints on a screen. (And) toddlers don’t have the control to know which buttons may exit them out of an app, so it can be a much more time-consuming process, rather than just sitting to read a (print) book,” said Breuninger, 37, from New York.

And taking her 3-year-old son to the library is another way for them to break away from screens (which they limit to 30 minutes a day during the week). “Now he is a big pre-reader, and we let him choose two-to-three books before bed. He loves looking at the (library) shelves and making the choice himself.”

Maria, a mother of two from Long Island, also thinks that the tactile experience that her 2-year-old son gets from handling print books — especially his favorite “touch and feel” books — is as important as the quality time that they get from reading together.

“It’s just better for him to learn how to turn pages, how to hold a book. He likes to feel the pages,” said Maria, 37, who also guesses they have 75 to 100 hard copies of children’s books at home. “Staring at a phone or tablet isn’t good for his eyes. And learning to swipe isn’t going to help him develop his motor functions.”

Brooklyn mom Valerie Morgan tried introducing her son Benjamin, 2, to one or two digital books on the iPad — and said that he got bored with them much faster than he did with traditional print storybooks.

“When we have shown him e-books — which is only recently — he flips through them quickly and doesn’t spend much time looking at each picture,” said Morgan, 42. “When he looks at printed books, he really spends time on them. He likes to be in control of turning the pages. He likes to go back to the beginning sometimes, or skip ahead. He also really responds to interactive books, like lift-the-flap kind of things, or books that have cutouts.”

Of course, it can be much easier to tote one tablet loaded with a dozen storybooks than to carry a whole sack of children’s books on a trip or while running errands. Or sometimes your kid is in the mood for a story, and you forgot to bring the books with you — but you’ve got a few loaded up on your phone. And other research has suggested that there are benefits in learning from digital devices. Previous research has suggested that e-books can help reluctant preschoolers and kindergarteners become more engaged with reading, according to the Center for Literacy at the University of Akron. And some embedded tools that enhance e-books — like dictionaries — might also help kindergarteners improve their vocabulary and reading comprehension.

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Munzer noted that this was a very small study that featured parents who were not accustomed to reading e-books with their kids, as well, so it’s possible that once they got used to the medium, they would begin to focus more on the story, and less on the device. “This was just one small study using one type of e-book app (which is not commercially available), so it will be really important in the future to replicate this study using different types of apps that are commercially available,” she said.

So if you do read your little ones some stories off of your tablet, Munzer suggests taking a page from what she found in her report: Engage in the e-book the same way you would with the print book, and highlight how the story relates to your child’s life rather than fussing over the device.

“Try not to focus as much on the tech element, and focus instead on the story and how to tailor the experience toward your child,” she said.

Whether you choose e-books or print books, the important thing is that you’re investing in story time with your child, period. The National Education Association reported that kids who were read to three or four times a week were more likely to count to 20 or higher than kids who were not read to as much (60% vs. 44%), as well as more able to write their own names (54% vs. 40%). And illiterate people earn 30%-42% less than their literate counterparts.

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