Yes, screen time can be healthy for your kids

21 May 2015 - 02:00 By Claire Keeton
Image: Thinkstock

More and more parents are limiting their childrens' screen time - but should e-book reading fall into that much-maligned category? Claire Keeton weighs up the merits of digital and paper stories.

I’m not a model parent. Ask my son, 8, who would rather be playing Minecraft on weekends than being dragged off to the mountains. Before he was born, I was reading Rock & Ice magazine instead of the stack of parenting manuals handed to me. But I’ve got one thing right: almost every day since he opened his eyes, I’ve read to him.

Now he reads to himself and to me, and we still read books together at bedtime. He reads in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, in a car, in a tree, books are so good, so good you see! Apologies to Dr Seuss - but this child really does read everywhere.

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And when he discovered “chapter” books, he harangued me daily about whether the second book in The Abominators series had reached the bookstore yet. The night I brought it home he read it to the end and his friends queued up to borrow it. Books were hot property - among Grade 1 boys.

That stories have the power to absorb my soccer-playing child for hours didn’t surprise me. I’m a reading addict, since I was a kid, by the light of a torch under the blankets. I was surprised, though, to discover that for him an e-reader trumps a turn-the-pages kind of book. I assumed, falsely, that a young reader would delight more in progressing through a paper book than in swiping or clicking through electronic pages. That's the generation gap talking.

Obviously growing up in the i-Pad generation, his connection to screens is strong - and his Kindle, a gift from my brother, is a total hit. The first night I gave it to him he read a 63-page book from electronic cover to cover. Typically he reads chapters, not whole books, in a sitting.

But despite the appeal and convenience of an e-books, I will keep borrowing and buying printed books for my son, as I do for myself. I spent half my childhood cycling to our library and I want him to enjoy the sanctuary of libraries. Fortunately his school library has been an excellent foundation.

Libraries are also an ideal meeting place for preschoolers, who benefit developmentally from the manual process of turning the pages of books.

Learners do understand and recall better when learning on paper than they do on screen, suggest studies conducted in Scandinavia and Israel. And the National Literacy Foundation in the UK found in a survey of 35 000 children in 2012, that reading printed books seems to be more enjoyable and contribute to above-average literacy skills (on their own or combined with screens).

block_quotes_start  E-readers seem to benefit boys, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds or boys, more than printed books block_quotes_end

That was the first time children in its annual survey reported that they read more outside school on electronic devices than on paper. The same year, American kids started preferring the on-screen experience. E-readers also seem to benefit boys, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds or boys, more than printed books.

To understand the pros and cons of reading on screens the literacy foundation and RM Education reviewed research on The impact of e-books on the reading motivation and reading skills of Children and Young People, releasing a report last September. In this the foundation recommended a “mixed reading diet” in format (electronic and paper) and content (fiction and non-fiction).

Before he fired up his Kindle for the first time my son made sure I understood its value and its status with regard to household rules.  “This is reading, not screen time!” he declared. Fair enough.

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