E-books for toddlers: bad idea?

A new tablet device was launched this week for the two- to five-year-old set. Retailing for at least $389, it’s an extravagant purchase for a toddler—and that doesn’t even include a $99 annual subscription fee for games, e-books, and age-appropriate software.

That might be fine for parents willing and able to shell out thousands for private nursery prep schools and kindergarten-testing tutors, but will the device actually help kids learn language and reading skills more effectively than traditional board books and babbling conversations?

Probably not, said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. What he told me next made me glad that I only had cardboard versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Pat the Bunny when my kids were little.

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“There is a sensory component to books that isn’t there with books on electronic pads or tablets,” he explained. “You can smell it, turn the pages, and taste it,” as infants are inclined to do. (I had to replace Hungry Caterpillar twice after my toddlers gnawed through the cardboard.)

That might help little ones become more intimately familiar with the books, helping them learn from them, but far more important is whether a person is actually sitting with them while they’re gazing at the pages. Researchers have shown time and again that kids learn better when they’re having interactions with real people, rather than electronic voices reading to them from a computer or speaking to them from the TV.

A Georgetown University study found that kids who learned to put on mittens from watching a video took six times as long to learn the process as those who watched it demonstrated by an adult standing in front of them.

“When parents read to a child, they sound out the words, ask questions, and explain concepts their child doesn’t understand,” said Rich. “That can’t be integrated into even the best software.”

It can, though, be integrated into e-books if parents take the time to read to their child from a tablet instead of using it as an electronic babysitter.

“I’m big believer in teaching kids to live in a digital society and use what the rest of the family uses, but they do need to be supervised,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a Boston-based pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We don’t recommend that young kids use any type of technology for very long since they have the attention span of a butterfly.”

For kids in preschool and beyond, the academy recommends limiting screen time for entertainment purposes—computers, tablets, TV, electronic games—to no more than two hours a day.

“Kids need time to do puzzles, ride bikes, climb trees,” said O’Keefe. “I’ve had parents tell me that they’ve never played a board game with their kids, which is crazy.” And no, Monopoly for Playstation doesn’t count.