Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Send him a media-related parenting question via firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.
Q: We recently bought eReaders for our sons, ages 5 and 7. I am wondering if we should treat the time they spend reading on these devices the same as the time they spend reading library books or books from their own bookshelf? Also, I know that generally the concern around screen time is with attention issues, but are there any adverse consequences for vision associated with reading an eReader as opposed to a printed book?
~eCurious from Grand Isle, VT
A: Dear eCurious,
As far as learning is concerned, reading is reading. Whether those words are on a page made from wood pulp or whether they are electronically generated and appear on a screen, the process of decoding words into ideas, narratives, and images is the same.
One of the great things that eReaders can do that paper books cannot is provide supporting materials that are best presented as images or sounds. For example, a description of a scientific experiment can be illustrated by a video of the scientific process in action or the description of an extinct bird species can be amplified by a recording of its song.
On the other hand, one of the benefits of reading (that cannot be duplicated watching TV or movies) is that the reader can imagine places, people, and situations in ways that are individual and unique. To ensure that your children explore and enjoy that experience, balance texts (particularly non-fiction) that contain lots of links with text-only fiction and poetry, whether on a printed book or eReader. You will be encouraging your children to use their own imagination as well as their desire to research what they are reading more deeply.
While there is no evidence that eReaders can have irreversible effects on your children’s vision, many people experience more eyestrain after reading a lighted screen than they do reading a printed page. And while some eReaders have backlit screens which project light much like a computer or TV screen, others use e-paper screens which reflect light and, like paper and ink, can be easier on the eyes. Make sure to do your homework and have your children try out eReader options to choose the right device for your child. And remember that while lighted screens can cause temporary eyestrain, the same can be said for reading a printed book in dim lighting, or for long periods of time. Choose the medium that best fits your child in terms of comfort and convenience, and be sure to let them know that they should take breaks from reading if their eyes begin to bother them.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,