Print books foster greater interactivity between parents and children than electronic versions, according to a study by researchers from the University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital. The study focused on both verbal and nonverbal interactions between toddlers and their parents while reading both print and tablet-based books.

Dr. Tiffany Munzer, the study’s lead researcher and a fellow in developmental pediatric behavior at the Mott Children’s Hospital, said:

“Parents and children also had a lower quality of interaction over even this basic electronic book without these fancier features. There’s something about the tablet itself. These devices do not lend themselves to a shared experience.”

Print books encouraged children and parents to physically work together to hold the book together and turn pages, leading to additional interactions. Even electronic books intended to create a high degree of engagement through animation and interactive features resulted in fewer parent-child interactions, focusing attention instead on the screen. And simpler electronic books that lacked these distractions also failed to foster the degree of interaction provided by print books.

The study observed and videotaped the interactions of 37 sets of parents and their 2 or 3-year-old toddlers in an environment that replicated the home living room. Each set was given “Little Critter” books by Mercer Mayer in three different formats: print, basic eBooks, or enhanced eBooks, with the interactive features mentioned above.

With print books, researchers found that parents asked more open-ended questions that engaged the imaginations of their children, and solicited ideas about the book itself, like what might happen next or what a character was feeling. Equally important, parents were more likely to put the story in the context of the child’s own life, relating the story to the child’s own experiences.

Children, for their part, were more likely to talk about the print book, whereas eBooks focused their attention on screen activities, such as swiping and tapping. Parents spent more of their time with eBooks explaining how the device worked than in discussing the story. For example, they instructed the child to tap a dog to hear it bark rather than discuss why the dog was barking.

Another interesting constraint of the study was that each parent-child pair had five minutes to spend on each story. Parents got through more of the story itself during the five minutes when they were reading print to their children rather than tablets, suggesting that eBooks are simply too distracting to provide the valuable interactions that foster children’s imaginations and reading skills.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which published the study this month, endorsed the conclusion that pediatricians should promote parents’ use of print books for reading to their children, saying:

“…Pediatricians should help parents understand that enhancements often found in electronic books will not help child development as much as enhancements provided by parental interaction.”

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