Are audiobooks a good use of kids' time?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Last week Dr. Rich discussed the appropriateness of school assignments that required viewing tabloid news shows, this week he weighs in on the merit of audio books.

Q: My 5- and 2.5-year-old kids love listening to stories on CD, like Between The Lions. They can sit for quite a long time on the couch, quiet and attentive, while they listen. Do you think this a good use of time compared to watching TV?  What about compared to just daydreaming?

-An Ear for Entertainment in Atlanta, GA

A: Dear Ear for Entertainment,

Audiobooks are valuable media for your children because they don’t pre-digest imagery for them. That means that as your kids listen to the stories, they’re given the exquisite experience of actively imagining the worlds they’re hearing about, rather than having the characters and scenery presented to them like in a book or TV show. Their brains can paint the characters and actions in ways that resonate most with them. (See related Q&A about the difference between the book and movie versions of “Where the Wild Things Are”.)

Of course, some TV shows can affect kids positively, too—in fact, one study on Between the Lions found that kids who watched the show improved their letter recognition and reading skills. In either case, listening to or watching these stories is beneficial, but to enhance the experience with your family, you can add one more component: yourself!  Sit with your kids as they listen, and hold a physical copy of the book for them, turning the pages as they’re narrated—this is an especially smart move for chapter books. Your children will be able to make the connection between the written and spoken words, and you’re facilitating that interaction: The combination is a powerful, memorable one for them, which can fuel their lifelong interest in books.

Your question prompted me to think about how I would arrange kids’ media activites, in order from most to least engaging:

  • Telling them a story, without any book at all. It can be a tale you’ve memorized or one you make up.  Either  way, your expressions and voice are as captivating as the story itself.
  • Reading a book to your kids. You can foster positive connections for them between human contact, reading, and the imaginary world.
  • Listening with them to a book on tape, like I described above.
  • Letting kids play with interactive websites or watch interactive and educational TV shows. The more the media demands of a child (“Do you see a tool that can help us?”), the better.
  • Turning on entertainment TV. TV without specific educational aims still teaches, but perhaps not the lessons you hope your children will learn. When a child sees characters solve a problem with violence, they take that information in.

Are audiobooks as valuable as daydreaming? No, but few media are. Daydreams are driven by whatever captures our attention, whereas stories have a defined structure. Daydreams help us use our cortex and our imaginations to make sense of our limbic system (where our emotions live) and this, in turn actually makes us feel less alone as humans.

So my advice: Bring back boredom and welcome daydreaming! Make it a habit of forgoing a regular media session to take a walk with your kids in the woods. Have them observe a bird going about its daily chores; sit on the dirt and look for caterpillars; lay in the grass and watch the clouds or the stars. Talk about what you see, or just be together quietly: Both ways, you’re doing wonders for your children’s brains—and your own—by modeling the importance of unplugged downtime.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®