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Parents and toddlers interact more when reading print rather than e-books, study finds

The parents “asked fewer simple questions, commented about the storyline less, and read less during electronic-book conditions compared with print,” the researchers write.

reading to the kiddos
The study found that parents and toddlers “speak less overall and in a less collaborative manner when reading electronic books compared with print.”
Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

When reading aloud to their young children, many parents opt for electronic rather than printed versions of books.

Those parents may want to revisit that decision. A small but interesting study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics reports that the quality of parent-child interactions — at least when toddlers are involved — tends to be lower when the books are electronic.

Specifically, the study found that parents and toddlers “speak less overall and in a less collaborative manner when reading electronic books compared with print.”

That finding suggests that when the book is presented on a tablet or other electronic reader, the child may not be reaping all the developmental — and emotional — benefits of being read aloud to by their parent.

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Those benefits include exposure to “more sophisticated speech and knowledge” and “unhurried time to build attachment,” which, in turn, promotes better thinking skills, the authors of the study explain.

Indeed, experts widely agree that reading aloud is one of the most important developmental activities parents can do with their children.

Study details

For the current study, researchers at the University of Michigan recruited 37 pairs of parents and healthy toddlers aged 2 and 3 years old. The average age of the parents was 33, and most (30) were mothers.

The children included both boys (17) and girls (20). Twenty-one of them were white, eight were African-American and the remaining 10 were Hispanic or another race or ethnicity.

The researchers videotaped three read-aloud sessions with each of the families. In one, the parents read from an enhanced electronic book with features such as sound effects and animation. In another, they read from a basic electronic book. And in the third session, they read from a traditional print book. The order in which they read the books varied randomly from family to family.

The three books were in the “Little Critter” series by Mercer Mayer. They were chosen because they had a similar length and reading difficulty — and were available in all three formats.

The readings took place in a room that resembled a living room. Each session began with the parents and children free-playing for five minutes with non-electronic toys.

The researchers documented and coded everything that was said by the parents and children during each session, as well as all the nonverbal parent-child interactions. They looked at the frequency and types of things said, the amount of collaborative reading that occurred, and the overall emotional tone of the parent-child interaction.

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Key findings

The study found that reading print books produced more of what the researchers call “dialogic” collaboration between the parents and their children. This was in large part because the parents asked more open-ended questions (“What’s happening here?” “What did they do next?”) during the reading of a print book. They were also more likely to relate something in the story to an event in the child’s life (“Remember when you went to the beach with Dad?”).

As a result, the toddlers engaged in more back-and-forth dialogue with their parents when being read a print book.

All of the readings were deemed a “positive” experience, but there were more negative directives from the parent (“Don’t turn the page” “Don’t turn the volume up “ Don’t touch that button”) when the book was electronic.

In fact, parents and children talked less about the story and more about the device when reading an e-book. And it made no difference whether the e-book was enhanced or not, the study found.

The differences in the interactions were subtle, but significant, according to the researchers.

The parents “asked fewer simple questions, commented about the storyline less, and read less during electronic-book conditions compared with print,” they write. “These behaviors are important because they promote child receptive language by exposing children to novel vocabulary and more complex syntax than conversation occurring during daily activities.”

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Changing the focus

This was a small study, involving only a few dozen parents and children from one geographical area. A larger study might produce different results.

Still, the findings — that print books rather than e-books promote more and higher-quality parent-child interactions — should give parents pause when choosing what format of book to read to their children.

And if they do choose an e-book, the parents “should consider engaging as they would with print and minimize focus on elements of the technology itself,” say the study’s authors.

“Parents strengthen their children’s ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children’s lived experiences,” explains Dr. Tiffany Munzer, the study’s lead author and a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan, in a released statement.

“Research tells us that parent-led conversations are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media,” she adds.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Pediatrics website, but the full study is behind a paywall. Pediatrics is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.