Are eBooks Just as Good as Regular Books?

Like sugary snacks and cloth diapers, it seems like everyone has an opinion about whether it's okay for babies and toddlers to veg out with the iPad (or iPhone or TV) every now and then. Even former Secretary of State (and new grandmother) Hillary Clinton chimed in, telling attendees at last week's American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) convention that a glowing, touch-sensitive screen is no substitute for face-to-face interactions with mom and dad.

And while I have yet to meet a parent who thinks a three-hour "Caillou" marathon is an awesome way for baby to spend an afternoon, I have met many who think nothing of pulling out the iPad during story time. After all, reading to your child is one of the best things you can do -- it can help build his language and social skills and even stimulate early brain development. What difference does it make if "Goodnight Moon" comes from a tablet or a board book?

That's the question at the heart of a current conversation within the medical community, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Though the AAP recommends no screen time for children under 2 and fewer than 2 hours for older kids, the jury is out on the value of reading to baby from a tablet. That's because the technology is relatively new, so experts haven't been able to perform long-term studies on how, exactly, it affects baby's learning.

But that's not to say that research hasn't been done to support both sides. The article pointed to a few studies, one as recent as 2013, that concluded kids ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from a physical book had better reading comprehension than kids whose parents read to them from eBooks. And when you think about how you read a book to your baby, the findings make a lot of sense. "There's a lot of interaction when you're reading a book with your child," said Dr. Pamela High, who wrote a recent AAP policy that recommended pediatricians remind parents of the importance of story time with baby. "You're turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story. Those things are lost somewhat when you're using an eBook."

On the flip side, there's some evidence that an eBook or learning app that's super interactive can help kids learn words faster (though it doesn't do much in the way of helping them learn language).

All of which leaves us parents scratching our heads. Are eBooks screen time brain candy or a decent alternative to board books? Are we bad moms and dads for letting our kids play with apps that emphasize reading? Hardly. Personally, I've downloaded a handful of learning apps and will let my son play with them while I hop in the shower for a few minutes or need some moments of quiet to prep dinner. And as closely as I tried to follow the AAP's screen time rules, there were instances in the first two years when my baby looked at a screen (weekly FaceTime sessions with faraway grandparents, for one). But I can't say I feel guilty about that. Sometimes, I need all the help I can get, and if that comes in the way of 10 minutes of him playing Monkey Preschool Lunchbox, so be it.

At the end of the day, I think it's all about balance. For every brief iPad session he has, there are hours we spend cuddling together and reading about the latest Clifford/Pigeon/Little Blue Truck adventure. As much as I appreciate the spiffiness of these interactive apps and eBooks, I happen to think nothing can replace the experience of reading to my son from a regular book. We touch the paper and nothing jumps or whistles or spins. We linger over pictures and sound out letters together without help from a Siri-like voice. And, unplugged, we have a conversation.

Tell us: What's your take on screen time for your baby? Do you think an e-book can replace a regular book?

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Learning to read is a huge life lesson. Before your child starts to tackle this skill, here's what you should know.

Image of mom and baby looking at tablet courtesy of Shutterstock

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