Although it’s recommended that parents engage with young children when using digital media, research has found that when the device has interactive features, this activity is not as harmonious as reading books with them.
Tiffany Munzer, from the University of Michigan, US, and colleagues set out to explore this because of the exponential rise in the prevalence of tablet devices used by young children.
They write in the journal JAMA Pediatrics that “excessive use of digital media has been associated with externalising behaviours, greater risk for developmental delays, and poor sleep”.
Guidelines therefore advise restricting screen time and, when young children use digital media, engaging with them to moderate and support their learning.
But little is known about how toddlers and parents might interact in this context, Munzer explains, and evidence suggests it might be more fraught due to greater distractions that don’t encourage reciprocal interactions.
The researchers invited 37 parents and toddlers to take part in the experiment to “engage over a tablet-based book with all the bells and whistles” such as sound effects and animation, although with less distractions than some other commercially available apps, and read a regular print book together.
They read each media for five minutes in counterbalanced order while being recorded, and the videos were then coded for non-verbal indicators of parent-toddler interactions, including body posture and controlling or intrusive behaviours.
Overall, results showed differences in interactions when using the digital media than when reading the book.
The youngsters were more likely to block their parents’ access to the tablet to prevent them easily seeing or accessing it, making it difficult for the parents to communicate with their child.
Children displayed more intrusive and controlling behaviours by pushing their parents’ hand away from the tablet, grabbing it or moving it away. In response, parents engaged in the same behaviours by moving the child’s hand away and moving the tablet away from them.
The findings suggest, therefore, that books promote rich interactions between parents and toddlers while interactive tablets cause conflict.
Munzer says that although other studies should explore this further with more participants and different apps, these behaviours could have broader impacts on child development.
“The back and forth exchange … that happens between parents and children creates moments of joy,” she explains, “and is the foundation for child development.
“It is how children learn new words, gain emotional competence, and builds on their problem-solving abilities. Social reciprocity is how relationships are nurtured and is important for our future generation’s development and achievement.”