Ask The Expert: Are E-Readers Bad For Kids?

We asked a pediatrician at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children if you should be giving the gift of e-readers this year.

E-reader and books image via shutterstock

E-reader and books image via shutterstock

As Santa starts to pack up his sleigh this year, will he be bringing your child an e-reader? Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and other e-readers are popular gifts this time of year, but many parents wonder if they should opt for paper books instead, in the interest of their children’s health. We asked Dr. Andrew C. Siesennop, pediatrician at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children, if e-readers are better or worse than paper books when it comes to children’s health.

What kind of physical effects do e-readers have on children’s eyes? 

From what studies show, using an e-reader in the appropriate manner does not physically change or damage a child’s eyes or affect the development of their vision. Factors that do affect children’s eyes, however, are the level of lighting in the room and the amount of prolonged uninterrupted time that is spent using the device. Dim lighting and focusing on objects at a fixed distance for long periods of time can contribute to eyestrain. Eyestrain is usually a temporary condition that may lead to headache, irritated eyes, and blurry or blotchy vision. The effects are not long lasting but can cause significant discomfort.

Can the same be said for watching TV or using a computer, or are e-readers easier on the eyes? 

The physical effects of e-readers on children’s eyes are no different than the effects of watching TV, playing video games, or even looking at a paper book or other objects at a close distance. Eyestrain can develop just as easily if you are looking at a lit screen as if you are looking at a non-illuminated black and white page.

Should parents restrict the amount of time children use e-readers? 

It is important that parents set limits on the amount of time children spend doing any one thing exclusively. Limiting use of e-readers allows children to experience other activities throughout the day that will nurture physical, cognitive, and social development. A well-balanced variety of activities promotes each aspect of development for children. Just as a parent would limit the time a child spends watching TV or walking around the zoo, reading time should be balanced relative to other pursuits.

Should young children be learning to read on e-readers? 

While a young child is reading, not only are they learning the words on the pages, but they are also developing the motor, visual, and social skills involved in holding the book properly, flipping from one page to the next, relating the story to the illustrations on the page, and interacting with the adult or older child who is helping. Many times, when using an e-reader, the discussion between the adult and the child focuses more on how to use the device correctly or how to keep it from accidentally being damaged, instead of discussing the story. With advances in e-reader technology, kid-friendly durability of the devices, and increased familiarity of children and adults with software interfaces, these concerns could be overcome in the future. But as for now, the use of e-readers does not provide a comparable physical and social experience as print books.

What benefits to the learning process, if any, can e-readers provide for older children who are reading on their own? 

Activating specific technology tools within e-readers as an aid for learning may have an advantage to paper books for some children. When a school-aged child reads, especially for an assignment, the purpose of this reading is to retain the information written on the page for later testing or writing a paper. A recent study suggests that the use of an e-reader device that has decreased the number of words and enlarged the font on the screen can improve both speed and comprehension of reading in dyslexic high school students when compared to reading from print books. This may help with information retention in these children.

Are e-readers a helpful tool for supplemental material or are they more often a distraction? 

A paper book is easily recognized by children for what it is, an object with words and pictures that is meant to be read in order to tell a story or teach them new information. E-readers share the same content as a paper book but often have other attractive functions too. They can be used to surf the web, video-chat with family and friends, listen to music, view pictures and videos of family activities, or play games. Many children know that with just the swipe of a finger, they can easily transition from yawning through a chapter in War and Peace to destroying evil pigs’ homes with a flock of very mad feathered friends. As with all objects that have the potential to cause distractions, parents setting limits as to how the device is used and modeling appropriate behavior play a huge role in how e-readers can be used effectively for childhood development and learning.

Should parents wait until children are older before introducing e-readers as an option, or can children learn to read from the beginning on them? 

I suggest starting off using them more as compliments to paper books, instead of replacing print, especially in the promotion of early literacy in young children.

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