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Tips & Advice

When Is a Book Still a Book? Book Reading vs. Screen Reading

by Devon A. Corneal

Photo credit: Travis Warren via Flickr CC

I’m supposed to limit my son’s screen time. Everyone says so, and I do mean everyone. The Mayo Clinic. The American Academy of Pediatrics. The National Institutes of Health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture. And a few dozen researchers. Studies show that “children get more sleep, do better in school, behave better, and see other health benefits when parents limit content and the amount of time their children spend on the computer or in front of the TV.”

I try to do this. I have rules about my son’s screen access, which I largely stole borrowed from NarrowBackSlacker.com. A few days ago, however, I broke my rules and let him read a book on the iPad while we were running errands. Technically, that’s a screen. But it’s also a book. So I wondered: Are books on iPads considered screen time? What about books on the Kindle? The Nook? The iPhone? My desktop? Does reading count only when you’re holding a “real” book?

The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, isn’t at all clear. Even the venerable New York Times isn’t sure. Tablets and eReaders are new devices and research hasn’t yet caught up with the technology, leaving parents worried about the effect these modern marvels are having on their children. Common Sense Media’s recent report, Children, Teens, and Reading, notes that parents have mixed attitudes about letting their children use eReaders, tipping between comfort and concern.

One thing everyone agrees on, however, is that electronic devices are here to stay. If that’s the case, then maybe we shouldn’t be asking ourselves “Which is better?” Instead, it may make more sense to ask how we can incorporate technology with traditional books to raise literate children in a way that is developmentally appropriate and engaging. Strict rules about screen time may have to give way so we can maximize opportunities to get our kids to read.

That’s not to say that kids should have unlimited access to electronics. For kids under two, the AAP recommends that children have no screen time, and it doesn’t make an exception for eBooks. At that age, children’s interactions should be with people and traditional books, rather than with videos or devices.

For preschoolers and kindergartners, the best choice may still be old-fashioned books. For one, they allow kids to have a tactile experience turning big, beautiful pages designed for tiny hands. Kids can curl up around a book with their parents in a way that an electronic reader doesn’t quite permit. Paper books also don’t contain add-ons like games and music that many eBooks do which, although interesting, can distract young readers from the underlying content of the story. That being said, for some children those add-ons can be extremely engaging and promote early reading by providing additional context for words that children may struggle with. My son’s kindergarten class made frequent use of computers and tablets and he’s now a proficient and enthusiastic reader of both electronic and regular books.

Once kids become independent readers, however, how they read may matter far less than the fact that they read. As Jordan Shapiro wrote for Forbes earlier this year, “most studies show that the text delivery method is irrelevant. Good reading behavior has nothing to do with technology. eReaders, tablets, [and] laptop screens are all capable of delivering long-form text. Books have nothing to do with paper. In fact, electronic devices only increase access to books.” Which is important, because data is telling us that the percentage of children reading for pleasure on a daily and weekly basis has been declining precipitously across all ages.

Ultimately, there’s nothing that suggests that reading on a screen is inherently bad for kids. So you can relax if you’ve been handing over your phone or tablet or computer to your son or daughter. You might even want to pat yourself on the back for raising a kid who wants to read. In this day and age, that’s a good thing.