Toddlers appear to be much more engaged with their parents when stories are read to them from books rather than digital tablets, a new study finds.
Researchers found that instead of having the enjoyable back and forth that occurred when stories were read from a book, toddlers and parents were likely to wrestle for control of a tablet, according to the study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
“It may be that when parents and toddlers engage over a tablet, it might be harder for them to have moments of connection,” said Dr. Tiffany Munzer, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who led the study. “I think part of the explanation for that is the design of tablets: they are more of a personal device. It could be that parents and kids are not used to using them together.”
To look at whether the medium made a difference when parents read to their toddlers, Munzer and her colleagues rounded up 37 parent-child pairs and ran a three-part experiment in which parents read to their children from an enhanced tablet-based book, a basic tablet-based book and a print book. The children were all aged 24 to 36 months and had no developmental delays or serious medical conditions.
Each reading session occurred in a laboratory space that had been set up to look like a living room that contained couches and a box with three books (one text, the other two digital) placed out of the children’s reach, with a one-way mirror and video cameras.
During each reading, the researchers kept track of the body positions and controlling behavior of parents and children. For example, they noted if a child positioned herself so that the parent would have less access to the book, or if the child pulled the book away or closed it.
The researchers also asked parents to fill out surveys that queried about demographic details, such as parent’s age, gender, educational attainment, household income, race or ethnicity, household income and marital status. The majority, 81%, of parents in the study were mothers and most, 76%, had a four-year college degree or greater. Most participants, 89%, were married.
When the researchers analyzed the video recordings, they found that when parents were reading from tablets, children were 3.3 times more likely to position themselves as if they were reading alone compared to when parents read from a print book. Children were also more likely to try to take control of tablets and to push a parent’s hand away from a tablet than they were with print books.
When parents read from tablets, “their language use may not be as potent,” Munzer said. “With a print book, parents feel they can cozy up with their kids and make the story come alive. I think the design of the tablet may be interfering with the ability of parents and kids to engage together and might be bringing out more control behaviors, such as parents pushing the kids’ hands away from the tablet and kids making grabs for them.”
The new study’s findings are “consistent with prior research on the use of mobile media in young children,” said Dr. Barry Solomon, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the division of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We know from prior research that toddlers’ use of electronic devices typically occurs independently,” Solomon explained in an email. “However, book reading should be a shared experience. As the authors suggest, the audiovisual effects - the bells and whistles - do not promote shared experience. They likely hold the toddlers’ attention in a way that prevents meaningful child-parent interaction.”
Tablets don’t seem to promote the kind of back and forth “behavior that we know is critical for children’s cognitive development,” said Solomon, who was not involved in the new research. “The study’s findings reinforce what I see in our pediatric primary care practice. When we give families with young children a print book, their faces light up and they read together with enjoyment and shared purpose.”