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Toddlers engage more with print books than tablets: Study

“The print book is a really beautiful object," said Dr. Tiffany Munzer.
Posted at 7:09 AM, Mar 26, 2019

“Once upon a time” may be better read on paper than on a screen.

A new study suggests that toddlers interact more with their parents when they read print books compared to electronic versions. The results of the study were published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

E-books sell well. The number of Americans who read e-books rose from 17 percent to 28 percent of Americans from 2011 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Compared to print books, they tend to be cheaper and save shelf space.

But it’s just not the same when it comes to small children, said the lead author of the study.

“The print book is really the gold standard in eliciting positive interactions between parents and their children,” Dr. Tiffany Munzer told ABC News. She is a fellow in development behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “Our goal with some of the kinds of findings in the study is not to make things harder for parents, but to help them focus on activities that spark interactions with their children where they feel that back-and-forth is really easy.”

She estimates that 30 percent of children read e-books at least once a week.

Dr. Munzer and her colleagues studied 37 pairs of parents and their toddlers. Each pair was videotaped in a lab reading three different stories from the Little Critter series back-to-back. For each story, parents had a 5-minute reading time limit, so results couldn’t be pegged to how long it took them to present the story. There were three book formats in total: an electronic tablet with enhanced visual and sound effects, an electronic tablet without enhanced effects, and a print book with illustrations. The number and types of interactions the families shared -- things like parents asking toddlers questions, telling them what they’re seeing on the page, and encouraging them to point out objects during the storytelling, were then tallied.

Parents had the most engagement with their toddlers in storytelling when they read print books. They also were able to get through more of the story in the five minutes if it was read aloud from a print book. Toddlers, too, made more statements with print books, and non-verbal signs of bonding were greater when print books were read.

When the parents read e-books, they made more statements about how to use the tablet; for instance, how to swipe to the next page or where to push a button.

Why do print books work better for toddlers than e-books?

Dr. Munzer feels the answer lies in the distractions built into e-books, like buttons to press, and its automated replacement of the variety of sounds and explanations that parents would otherwise provide themselves.

“The print book is a really beautiful object in that each parent and child interacts differently over a print book,” said Dr. Munzer. “Parents know their children well and have to make it come alive for their child to create that magic.”

Dr. Leila Haghighat is an internal medicine resident from Yale New Haven Hospital who also works with the ABC News Medical Unit.