Screen Panic

We are living in an era that is hyper hypochondriac. Add to that a substantial amount of paranoia from security concerns through to Ebola, and it seems almost justifiable (not quite, as we shall see) that Douglas Quenqua of the New York Times, would write a front page article, entitled, “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?"

There are a number of articles in the Oct 12th edition of the Times that reference health and concerns about diet and other medical conditions. I won’t comment on those other than to say that every newspaper now engages in speculation about health, both psychological and physical. Most of the time, as in Quenqua’s piece, the research underpinning the articles is referenced but not genuinely explored. This would not be an issue were statements like the following not made: “In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension that children whose parents used traditional books.” Prior to this comment, Quenqua points out that we don’t know too much about what happens when children read with the aid of an iPad for example, and we certainly know very little about what happens when they listen to their parents reading from a screen. There is an important reason for this. The iPad only appeared in April of 2010 and from a market point of view only reached critical mass in 2012. The time it takes to do research in this area does not match the appearance of the technology. Turns out, of course, that the research referenced talks about devices from early in the 2000’s, but that is not the worst of the approach taken by this writer.

When journalists play social scientist, or when they don’t take care with headlines and don’t engage with the researchers they quote, other than in the most superficial of ways, we end up with Quenqua’s article. Its appearance on the front page of the Sunday Times attests to the importance editors have placed both on its content and with respect to readers.

So, let’s explore some of the comments in the article. Parents, it is suggested, focus more on the device than on the children. The researcher who is quoted saying this, Dr. Julia Parish-Morris is a developmental psychologist and completed this research in 2012 and published it in Mind, Brain and Education, Vol. 7, No.1 (2013).

The abstract makes the following assertion: “Early experiences with books predict later reading success, and an interactive shared reading style called ‘dialogic reading’ is especially beneficial to emergent literacy.” (200) There is nearly twenty-five years of research in dialogic reading. The best way to describe this type of learning is to think about the dialogues you might have with your children about any number of different topics at any given time. Dialogic reading suggests a variety of techniques to bring out discussion and interaction. Most of the articles about dialogic reading use the research of Grover J. Whitehurst, and he began writing about this method in 1991. And clearly, interacting with your child as you read, makes sense. Except, aside from the heady terminology, parents have always done this as have teachers. In fact, the nature of the interaction between children and their parents has been an area of research most particularly since Dr. Spock wrote his now famous book, ‘Baby and Child Care.” (1946).

Keep in mind that for the most part, the NYTimes article is referring to preverbal children or children who have learned some words, but not too many. When the article says: “…dialogic reading, the sort of back-and-forth discussion of the story and its relation to the child’s life that research has shown are key to a child’s linguistic development,” it is referencing behavioural studies of parents and children, observational studies that generally would have focused on children older than 2. Parish-Morris’s research was formulated from surveys and discussions with 165 “parent-child dyads” (200). This might be the kind of study from which others would develop, but to draw any conclusions from such a small sample makes no sense. This is data that cannot be treated as anything other than anecdotal.

In order to bolster her argument, Parish-Morris says that e-book sales increased 164.4% from 2009-2010, (200)but she would have known that the majority would not have been children’s books. This statistic is used to make it appear as if there is a tsunami of growth even though in 2010, 9% of consumer book purchases were e-books. The vast majority of these were best-sellers. But take a look at this quote from Publisher’s Weekly, the bible for sales figures in the book industry. “…the percentage of e-books to total sales was much smaller: only 16 children’s books sold more than 200,000 copies digitally last year, [2013] compared with a combined 125 titles that sold 200,000+ in print. Granted, those 125 print titles include everything from Dr. Seuss to Pinkalicious to Charlotte’s Web, books that would be unlikely to end up on e-readers in large numbers. But the disparity in those numbers reinforces the fact that kids are still predominantly reading books the old-fashioned way.”


So, the majority of sales are still in print. Should we panic? What is so disturbing about both the research by Parish-Morris and the NYTimes article is that the actual analysis of the impact of screens on everyone from parents to children needs to be analyzed. But if panic is the foundation for comments on children, and the research is at best limited and superficial, how are we to proceed? Of course, talking to your children, reading to them, interacting with them, is essential and just pure common sense. Ironically, the same panic about screens was applied to the advent of television. The 1950’s and 1960’s are full of discussions and debates about what television was doing to the minds of our children. In the 1950’s, parents told their children not to spend so much time on the telephone, an echo of arguments in the 1850’s about photography, which was seen to be a vile influence on the minds of children, distracting them from the real world. The cinema was panned as a distraction in the early 20th century. The core of the issue is that research in this area, particularly with respect to children, needs to be inter-disciplinary, needs to learn from scholars in communications and cultural studies. More on Screen Panic in my next entry.