Tablets are tempting, but researchers have found reasons why good old-fashioned print books are a better choice for your kids.

By Rebecca Macatee
March 26, 2019
Father reads a book to his son.
Credit: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

March 26, 2019

It's long been known that reading to your child has a bunch of benefits, but there's been some debate on whether eBooks are as effective as print books. New research appears to indicate that using technology may not be the best option.

In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Michigan found that parents and toddlers interacted more when reading print books rather than electronic ones.

The results were based on 37 parents who read stories to their toddlers in three different book formats: print, basic electronic, and enhanced electronic (featuring sound effects and/or animation). When the parents and toddlers read the electronic books (both basic and enhanced), they talked less and had lower collaboration than they did when reading the print books.

So why is this? Well, as Tiffany Munzer, M.D., the lead author of the study, told, toddlers "rely on their parents to make the print book come alive, which needs to happen less with electronic books."

Think about it: when you read from a print book, it's not uncommon to use different voices and sounds in order to get a reaction from your child. But when reading an eBook, many of those sounds and expressive elements are automated.

"Parents and toddlers know how to engage over a book, but when adding a tablet into the mix, it deflects from some of the positive benefits of that shared reading experience," adds Dr. Munzer, a pediatric developmental behavioral fellow at the University of Michigan. "That isn't to say there is no benefit to electronic book reading compared with doing nothing; [it's] just less compared with print books."

If you prefer doing storytime on an iPad, though, don't beat yourself up. Reading print books isn't the only way parents can engage with their children, Dr. Munzer points out. Building a tower together or playing a board game can be just as fulfilling.

In other words, there isn't just one right way to do things. And Dr. Munzer says her team's goal with the study, "isn't to make things harder for parents, but rather to help families reflect on activities they engage in that nurtures connection with their children, because that's what being a parent is all about—it's finding that joy."