A: Not all types of stimulation and exposure are the same. Screens provide a unidirectional flow of stimulation — televisions are wholly so, while computers and tablets allow for some reciprocity. Yet these are still highly crude and can’t replace the finely honed, nuanced elements of interaction with another human being.
There’s also a phenomenon where we, as a society, forget about the basic building blocks of development — giving an infant a tablet that teaches about going to school isn’t resulting in much when this child is still learning to master basic ideas like manipulating objects. Does a computer screen teach spatial skills and manipulation of objects? If a child doesn’t have the fund of knowledge about the world around them, “building that up” isn’t going to help until later on.
I think a related issue is one of “digital literacy,” and parents often fear that if their child isn’t exposed to technology at a young age, they won’t become facile with it. We certainly see issues of the “digital divide” in children, but it’s usually children who don’t have access to technology in elementary school and beyond. Your child is not going to “fall behind” by not knowing how to manipulate a touch-screen at age 2. The early years are critical for building good foundational skills that apply to all aspects of life, not technology exposure.
Q: How does screen time distract families from reading together and spending quality time with books? Why is reading aloud so important for children – and for parents?
A: Screen time is what we call a “displacement” — it tends to push aside other activities because it’s often attractive and “easier.” When I say “easier,” I mean that in a couple of ways: one, in a practical sense, it takes very little work: place a child in front of a device, turn it on — and that’s it. Two, most technologies can be fairly passive and don’t require a lot of cognitive power. The difference in the amount of work the brain has to do between reading and watching television is pretty substantial. So when families even choose to interact with screens together, it’s often not in addition to reading, but instead of reading. It also decreases interaction — even if a young child isn’t watching the television that’s on the room, other people often are and will speak and interact less with the young child, which has definite consequences for the child’s development.
Reading aloud is a powerful activity for families that make it a consistent part of their lives. For children who are still developing their fluency with reading, being able to read together allows children to take a break from the work of decoding print and enjoy the story or have an opportunity to ask a question or for clarification.
It also affords a moment of togetherness in the midst of often busy lives. Even when I was a resident, I used to do my utmost to stay awake (after one of those long, 30-hour shifts) long enough to read a brief story to my children, given how often I was not home to put them to bed. Even though they are now 9 and 10 years old, I still read to my children on most nights before bed. It’s also a chance to teach your children something — even if your own education level is not particularly high, the book still lets you “teach.”