Q: My husband wants to get our preschooler her own tablet. We've read to her on ours since she was a baby. Our pediatrician is concerned. We thought reading to her was a good idea. What does it matter whether we read on a screen or on paper?
A: Experts are divided on this. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly encourages parents to read to children from birth, they recently issued recommendations advising parents to "minimize or eliminate altogether" any screen exposure (tablets, phones, TVs) for children younger than 2, citing research on brain development. For older preschool children, the AAP suggests limiting screen time to less than two hours a day. (For more, go to healthychildren.org.)
There is research suggesting that too much screen time has negative effects on kids, from increased childhood obesity and behavioral problems to poor sleep patterns.
There is less research on children using screens to learn to read. "I don't know why the AAP decided it's smart to ban screen time," says Dr. Marilyn Adams, one of the nation's foremost reading researchers. "How about banning time with 'bad' screens?"
Adams says it's the quality of the content and interaction that matters. She's less concerned about whether kids turn a paper page or swipe a tablet page and more concerned that parents understand the benefits of reading to their children "early and often."
Researcher and educator Dr. Michael Milone says that the two key elements associated with reading to kids are joint attention (both of you focusing on the same thing) and the nature of the interaction (talking, pointing, explaining and such).
"There are qualitative and quantitative differences in both elements," says Milone, "when the text is a book versus a digital device.
"In the traditional view of comprehension, the book is probably superior. But we're entering a different world, one in which traditional comprehension isn't as highly valued as before. If you can write code or analyze data to predict a change in the price of natural gas, you will be successful, even if your favorite reading is a series of tweets."
Because digital devices are convenient and entertaining, "they will become dominant, if they are not so already," says Milone. "It may be comparable to the change that took place when writing and books became dominant over memory and the oral transmission of information. It's going to happen, so we have to adapt to it."
If you decide on a tablet, choose a device and content that will enhance your daughter's emotional and cognitive development. Many educators and parents rely on Children's Technology Review (www.pickyteacher.com). Its Children's Technology Review Exchange, or CTREX, is a database of education software and hardware that helps parents quickly determine which apps, games and digital media are best suited to their kids. You can browse online in guest mode, or you can subscribe and get full reviews and rating details for $59 a year.
CTREX is for people who are tired of gimmicky review sites with outdated information, says Dr. Warren Buckleitner, the founder of Children's Technology Review and an editor.
"There are no suspicious ratings, affiliate links or social agendas," he says. "Subscribers can learn about a new product the day it's released."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)