Digital books can harm learning skills of young readers, research shows

WASHINGTON — Do you prefer old-fashioned print books or downloading stories on a tablet when it comes to teaching your kids to read? One study offers a warning when it comes to the more modern option: digital books could actually harm young children’s learning, it turns out. That is, unless the e-books have features added to the content specifically intended to improve comprehension.

Researchers found overall, however, that early readers are less likely to understand picture books when they read the digital version. But the findings, published in the journal Review of Educational Research, show that when digital picture books contain the right enhancements that reinforce the story content, they actually outperform their print counterparts.

For the study, research team analyzed the results of 39 previous studies including a total of 1,812 children between ages 1 and 8. They compared children’s story comprehension and vocabulary learning when they read a book on paper compared to on screen. Also assessed were the effects of story-related enhancements in digital books, the presence of a dictionary, and the role of adult support.

The bulk of the studies were carried out between 2010 and 2019, and for the greater the part, in the last four years of that time span.

“The wide availability of digital reading options and the rich tradition of children’s print books beg the question of which reading format is better suited for young readers’ learning,” says study co-author Natalia Kucirkova, a professor of early childhood development at the University of Stavanger in Norway and The Open University in Britain, in a statement. “We found that when the print and digital versions of a book are practically the same and differ only in the voice-over or highlighted print as additional features in the digital book, then print outperforms digital.”

Kucirkova report that the digital device itself — and sometimes digital enhancements that are not aligned with the story content, such as a dictionary — interfere with children’s comprehension. But when digital enhancements are designed to increase children’s ability to make sense of the narrative — for example, by prompting children’s background knowledge to understand the story or providing additional explanations of story events — digital books not only outweigh the negative effects of the digital device but also outperform print books on children’s story comprehension.

“Our overall findings may reflect the rather low quality of enhancements in the digital books available for young children,” explains Kucirkova. “Many digitized versions of picture books are inferior to the print version, yet young children widely use them.”

More distractions on e-books take away from a child’s ability to understand content

With a few exceptions, the commercially-published digital books in the studies do not include storytelling techniques that adults provide during book sharing. For instance, attracting children’s attention to the main story elements and focusing their attention on the chain of story events.

“If we want to support all children, we need to understand the impact of digital books and make them of higher quality,” says Kucirkova. “Digital books are low-cost to access and thus more readily available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, we can customize digital books to a child’s level of learning by including interactive features responsive to the child.”

Researchers note that children from lower-income families are also more likely to suffer negative effects from using e-books. The study, however, doesn’t explain why.

“For reasons that need to be clarified by additional research, our meta-analysis shows that children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be distracted from story content on digital books by their interactive features and by the reading devices themselves,” says study co-author Adriana Bus, a professor at the University of Stavanger. “As a result, these children are experiencing the most difficulty comprehending digital picture books.”

The authors say that e-books may be more effective than print books for enhancing children’s vocabulary if the digital books use a dictionary that defines infrequently used words and expressions. But digital dictionary features hinder can children’s ability to understand the story they are reading, indicating that focusing attention on word meanings distracts children’s attention from the story content.

“Makers of children’s digital books need to be careful about the enhancements they make, and educators and parents need to choose carefully which digital books young children read,” says Kucirkova. “Internationally, it is important to promote the production of exemplary prototypes including text in a range of languages and provide incentives to publishers, authors, designers, and illustrators to change the status quo. This is further evidence that digital book designers need to exercise caution with seemingly small and popular additions that may be helpful for isolated outcomes such as vocabulary learning but hinder the reading session overall.”

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.