Are Ebooks Better for Babies?

A new study suggesting that toddlers may learn more literacy skills from ebooks answers—and raises—questions.

Librarians’ role as media mentors regarding screen time for young children receives plenty of attention—and sometimes debate. Adding to the conversation is a recent study in Frontiers of Psychology suggesting that toddlers may learn more emergent literacy skills from ebooks than print.

Researchers Gabrielle Strouse, from the University of South Dakota, and Patricia Ganea, from the University of Toronto, videoed 102 pairs of parents and toddlers interacting with books, plus 50 more children in a split control group. While substantial existing research shows that shared picture book reading helps introduce new vocabulary to preschoolers and the skills needed to become readers, there were no studies focusing on children under two. In addition, research has shown that electronic book formats may support the development of early literacy skills to a greater extent than traditional print books because of built-in features such as pronunciation voice-overs and dictionaries. The researchers, however, could not locate a study showing this in regard to children under two.

Strouse and Ganea split parents into two groups: one that read two commercially available ebooks, and another that read two print versions of the ­ebooks. Since commercially available print ­editions did not precisely match the ­ebook versions, researchers took screenshots of the ebooks, printed and laminated the pages, and bound them to match the size they appeared on the tablet screen. The ebooks used voice-over technology; parents read the print.

Longer-term engagement

The results were startling: Parent-child pairs spent almost twice as much time reading electronic books than print, and children correctly chose a previously unfamiliar animal labeled in the book more often when the parents were reading the electronic version. Young children pointed to more objects in the e-format, while parents pointed to more in print. Toddlers also turned the page more often on ebooks.

The two books both focused on animals, with one title focusing on farm animals (sheep, duck, horse, cow), and the other featuring wild animals (lion, zebra, koala, crocodile). Parents supplied additional information to researchers regarding which animals their kids could already identify so new knowledge could be measured.

It was noted that using techniques such as “attention grabbers”—pointing to objects or asking “What’s that?”—and providing feedback to kids under two are seen as beneficial to initiate talking during shared reading. In previous research, however, built-in games and “hot spots” on ebook pages were seen as distractions to learning, so those were not included in the ebooks in this study.

Does this suggest that libraries should stop purchasing picture books in print, only loan iPads and other tablets for ­ebook reading, or only use ebooks for storytimes? Hardly.

Questions, questions

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limited screen usage for children under two, it is rare to find a parent or caregiver who hasn’t handed an iPhone or tablet to a crying baby or toddler. Since children are learning how to engage with media devices so early, could the engagement with ebooks be because the device is more familiar to the child than a print book? Often, early learning librarians hear from parents who are hesitant to hand a picture book to a young toddler or baby, fearful that paper pages will be ripped. By doing so, are we creating a future where ebooks will become the new version of board or picture books for babies and toddlers?

The motor skills necessary to “turn” ebook pages are vastly different than those needed to turn physical ones—much less laminated pages. As mentioned, the children in the study engaged in page turning more often with ebooks—but the physical books had laminated pages, not more standard paper or board.

It’s also important to note that the study’s ebooks were simply electronic versions of print books, minus the bells and whistles that developers typically add to appeal to consumers, marketing games and other enhancements as “educational.” Anything beyond voice-over tech and a built-in dictionary is not necessary for young readers.

Ultimately, the study shows that ebooks needs the same starting point as print versions to be successful: vivid illustrations, an engaging story, and an available lap to crawl into for shared reading time.

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Maggie Woo

I have a lot of questions about this study! Were the ebooks (and print copies of ebook screens) by known authors? Were the illustrators actual picture-book artists? Did they have good stories? Were the drawing artistic? Or was this simply an inexpensive computer-drawn 'book' that most libraries and families wouldn't buy in print format anyway? I think the way to do this "study" would be to go from an award-winning book in print and find an ebook version of it. If the results come out the same, THEN I'd be willing to accept thiese findings.

Posted : Oct 11, 2017 10:27


Linda Aksomitis

Great research! When my grandson was small we shared both print and electronic versions of books (and that was before smartphones and tablets) and I always he enjoyed both, but was engaged in different ways in the electronic version (which really just had click to turn pages back then).

Posted : Sep 29, 2017 09:26


Maureen McDonough

The one very important aspect of eBooks and small children that was not mentioned that concerns me a great deal - the contact with blue light. There is increasing evidence that blue light exposure messes up sleep patterns. Children under two need their sleep to allow those growing brains to develop properly. The small gains a child would receive reading an ebook vs a print, in my opinion, are not worth the potential detrimental impacts of the blue light. And, I am sure there will be more issues regarding exposing young children to personal devices and phones continuing to emerge.

Posted : Sep 29, 2017 01:11


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