June 26, 2017

TL;DR let’s just throw books at babies and hope for the best


Do you remember our piece a couple months back, about how toddlers’ reading comprehension remains about the same, regardless of whether they’re reading a print book or a digital one? In the intervening weeks, it appears that Kindles have grown sentient and become researchers: a study last week claims that toddlers are decidedly more engaged in storytime when there’s a screen involved. Take that, Little Golden. Take it and… cry, like we’re doing.

In a joint study between the University of South Dakota and the University of Toronto, researchers found that toddlers were more engaged, more enthusiastic, more questioning of content, and more likely to participate in the reading process overall when they were read a book on an electronic device, rather than a boring stupid old print book.

The toddlers, all between seventeen and twenty-six months old, were read the same content by their parents, but in two different formats. The electronic books included background music, animation, and voiceover reading, but no “hotspots” — areas for the parents or toddlers to click for additional features.

After reading both formats, the tech-obsessed tykes were asked to identify an animal from the story. The children’s level of attention was “significantly higher” for the electronic books, and the research shows that they pointed more at the screens than the pages. The parents also pointed more while reading the electronic books, proving what Steve Jobs intuited long ago: adults are really just giant babies, and we, too, love shiny things.

So does this new study prove that every parent should go out and buy their kid an iPad? I’m skeptical. There’s one big problem with this study: the print “books” weren’t books at all. Rather than using professionally produced print books, the intrepid researchers printed screenshots of e-books and bound up the single pages to create their “book.” The intention, it seems, was to be sure the printed and electronic content perfectly mirrored each other, but the real apples-to-apples here would have been to compare two reading experiences that actually exist — real e-books versus real print books.

To me, the results here just prove the toddlers in this study were smarter than the researchers. It doesn’t seem like a real scientific equivalent to present babies with first a fun, shiny electronic device and then a goddamn pamphlet that was created for a completely different medium, and then act all shocked when the babies give the print-out a whole lot of side-eye. That’s like having a study to compare a beautiful, deluxe hardcover with a PDF someone uploaded to a hacked graphing calculator. It’s just… those aren’t comparable reading experiences. And I’m giving all these toddlers a high-five, up top and down low, for knowing the difference.

But no high-five in the middle for these guys. They’re just too slow.



Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.