Digital Books Shouldn't Count As Screen Time

Debating Screen Time? Here’s Why Reading Might Tip Your Scales

Digital books will never replace the tactile experience of paper books, but as part of bedtime reading and improving access to reading materials, they shouldn’t be counted as screen time

Close Up Of Father With Mobile Phone And Son Using Digital Tablet Reading With Headphones At Home

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Parents often wonder whether screen time is ok. A group of researchers are arguing that if it’s reading, then it is.

This piece is part of Scientific American’s column The Science of Parenting. To learn more, go here.

I get that parents worry about screen time. Children throw tantrums when their screens are taken away, and media reports highlight the downsides of excessive screen use. Certain countries now prohibit smartphones in schools.

But speaking as a researcher studying the effects of screen-based experiences, screens can be a great tool for reading. Digital books give children unique opportunities to learn and reinforce skills through literacy apps. To that end, I am one of many researchers in this field who believe that digital reading should not be considered screen time in the traditional sense. Digital books can be highly personalized and educational, and foster children’s creativity. They provide opportunities for families to bond. Digital books don’t replace print books; they expand access to stories and visuals.

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Here are some things to consider as you explore effective strategies for budding readers and the productive use of tablets, computers or phones.

Little more than a decade ago, digital books were simple CD-ROMs. You moved the pages with a mouse on a stationary PC. Since then, digital books have evolved into highly interactive stories that can be read anywhere. Today’s young readers can make birds in print books fly with added virtual reality apps or play with dinosaurs to build their own storybook. Publishers have integrated popular titles into reading-on-demand subscription libraries, some of which come with real-life teacher-readers or artificial intelligence–based tutors. This bewildering array of reading possibilities bring exciting and challenging times for parents, educators and researchers alike.

With the large number of ed tech products that lack research and good design, the million-dollar question is: What makes a digital story good for children’s learning? Over the past 20 years, researchers have identified specific design features and reading situations that make some digital books more educational than others.

First, it’s crucial that digital books offer high-quality personalized reading experiences. With books that have AI-based text generators and a more open-ended design, children become multimedia creators, co-writers and co-illustrators of their own story universe.

The more progressive reading platforms do not simply churn out content Netflix-style, but actively reward community members for creating engaging experiences for other readers. With the popularity of texts being judged by both readers’ motivation and progress, we are likely to see more diversity of both content and formats of reading in the long run.

Second, digital books can significantly enhance the parent-child reading experience through intelligent avatars. Imagine a Sesame Street Elmo–like figure that asks questions to draw a child’s attention to interesting elements in the story. In addition to supporting independence by helping children understand what they are reading, the prompts can bring in new vocabulary and widen the child’s horizons.

What makes digital reading particularly exciting is how it augments parent-child conversations. Digital books designed with specific prompts for parents reading to children ages two to five increase math-related talk and are as good as, if not better than, print books. The questions embedded in digital books should model and expand what the parent might ask, and through this modeling, augment the quality of parents’ talk around the book.

While the physical bonding experience cannot be replaced digitally, positive parenting and the learning benefits of supported reading accrue even if parent and child are not in the same place. Co-reading through video chat has the same language learning benefits as in-person reading—as long as the feedback offered to the child is responsive and individualized. The application of such enhanced digital reading at distance is huge if you think about lockdowns during pandemics or the 108 million displaced people in the world. Or the global teacher shortage crisis. This is important from a social justice perspective.

It is not just individualized verbal prompts that digital books can bring to a shared reading experience. For example, zooming and panning added to an illustration is helpful as the camera can guide the child’s visual attention in concordance with the narration. This can increase story comprehension for children with low literacy skills.

But there is a limit. Beware of titles that pile up several multimedia features in one product; this overwhelms children as they have to process many types of information at once. We have years of research showing how not to design digital books: no bells and whistles, no loud sounds that interrupt conversations and no manipulative features that misuse children’s attention and data.

The Goldilocks solution lies in a balanced combination of features that respond to the child’s taps on the screen and correspond to the story plot. With such e-books, children remember more of what happened in the story after they had read it, even if they normally struggle with regulating their attention.

That these features work and can be part of children’s popular digital books is not a fantasy. Early literacy apps that spun off from Harvard Graduate School of Education research support families’ play and conversation in families. Our Story, a free children’s storymaking app based on my Ph.D. work inspired the design of several commercial apps that capitalize on the ease of digital content production. The app is based on the simple principle of “personalize and pluralize”: let children make their own content through open-ended design but also expand their horizons with pedagogical and diverse content. Today’s best publishers and e-book developers abide by these principles.

But as much as I endorse digital reading, the commercial turn in the development of educational technologies worries me, particularly in relation to profit-driven design and misuse of children’s data. Like some social media, subscription libraries turn kids’ attention into a commodity, downgrading the importance of teachers and librarians through automatic book recommendations that can lock children into unfulfilling experiences.

These books are often tied to advertising clicks, lack content in local languages, and exhibit low literary quality in their stories. Furthermore, there’s often no content oversight, allowing anyone to become a publisher, which can lead to the creation of politically biased or data-gathering materials targeting children. The advent of generative AI has expanded content creation possibilities but also raised concerns about quality. In this regard, digital books, like all ed tech, need rigorous quality checks and improved collaboration between researchers and developers.

The digital reading format has opened an exciting new research frontier. This includes harnessing real-time data that teachers and other professionals can use to individualize how children learn to read. AI can be a good partner in supporting adults’ choice of texts, prompts and reading activities for children, provided it is trained with diverse data and valid reading models. As researchers’ calls for evidence-based children’s ed tech are being heard by governments and funders, I hope the past two decades of e-book research can deliver the advantages of digital books to all children.

The screen time conflict parents feel is real and important. However reluctantly or enthusiastically you use devices with your child, I hope you’ll see that, at least for reading, screens can be an amazing tool to teach your child to read, to learn from diverse stories and to promote your child’s creativity.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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