Choose Print Books Over Digital When Reading to a Toddler

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©. K Martinko – Reading aloud to my baby, many years ago!

Research shows that parents and young children interact more over paper than screens.

A new study, just published in the journal Pediatrics, concludes that, when reading to a toddler, print books are better than electronic ones. Now, this is a conclusion that most parents could likely reach on their own, but at a time when digital media is often closer at hand than physical books, it bears repeating.

Researchers at the University of Michigan asked 37 parents to read three kinds of books to their child – a paper book, a basic electronic book on a tablet, and an enhanced electronic book on a tablet with interactive activities, i.e. touch a dog to make it bark. They filmed and watched the parent-child interactions to determine what kinds of verbalizations and emotions were expressed throughout the reading session. They concluded,

"Reading print books together generated more verbalizations about the story from parents and from toddlers, more back and forth 'dialogic' collaboration. ('What’s happening here?' 'Remember when you went to the beach with Dad?')"

Books on tablet, by contrast, distracted the child from the story and the parent's rendition, particularly when electronic enhancements were present. Study lead author Dr. Tiffany Munzer described them as less engaged with their parents than when reading a print book. She added,

"The tablet itself made it harder for parents and children to engage in the rich back-and-forth turn-taking that was happening in print books." (via NYT)

There were more negative exchanges while reading on a tablet, with the parent telling the toddler not to touch certain buttons, and more debate over who got to hold it. Dr. Munzer said this may be because "the tablet is designed to be more of a personal device [that] parents and children use independently at home."

Improved parental interactions aside, I'd argue that one of the greatest benefits of reading a print book to a child is fighting addiction to devices. By teaching a child to appreciate the experience of reading a physical book – turning the pages, smelling the paper, feeling its weight, watching the bookmark move if it's a chapter book (as they get older) – you are giving them a powerful tool with which to entertain and educate themselves forever.

Young children will spend so much of their lives staring at screens that it makes sense to seek out offline activities as much as possible, particularly in the early years when these habits are being established and kids are so impressionable.

As Dr. Perri Klass said in his writeup for the New York Times, this conclusion is not meant to make parents feel bad about themselves, but rather more secure in their own importance:

"The message to parents should not be that they’re doing it wrong (we all know we’re doing things wrong, just as we all know that we’re doing our best), but that parents really matter."