Back to School with e-Books: Are they healthy for children?

Kids everywhere are heading back to school this month, and many of them are armed with digital technology, including e-books and e-readers. But parents and educators sometimes wonder if staring at an electronic screen instead of a traditional book may cause undue strain on the eyes of youngsters.

Because the popular technology is still relatively new, there are not yet sufficient studies or research results to answer all of the questions or satisfy everyone’s e-book curiosity. But there are some informed conclusions that can be reached with help from a pediatrician who was interviewed last year about this intriguing and somewhat controversial topic.

A reporter for Boston Magazine put forth questions about whether or not e-readers were a risk to children’s health, in an interview with Dr. Andrew Siensnnop at Tufts Hospital for Children. Dr. Siensnnop specializes in general pediatric and adolescent medicine and is also an Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine.

Interacting with Electronic Screens

  • Citing clinical research, Dr. Siensnnop says that there is no evidence that using an e-reader in the appropriate way causes any physical alteration of a child’s eyes or any kind of eye damage.
  • As might be expected, however, children’s eyes are affected by the level of illumination in the room when reading. Another factor that can have an impact is the amount of uninterrupted time spent reading.
  • He says that there are two things that often contribute to strained eyes. One is focusing for a long time without giving your eyes a rest or a chance to look somewhere else. The other is using poor lighting while reading.
  • So it is recommended that children read their e-books and their traditional printed books in a well-lit environment and that they take regular breaks to rest their eyes. One good technique for resting the eyes, for instance, is to pause and look off into the distance to give the eyes a change of focus.

Meanwhile, Dr. Siensnnop points out that most eye strain is only temporary. Even if a child experiences it after reading a printed book, using an e-book reader, or playing on a computer then after sufficient time away from that task the symptoms should subside.

Reading Comprehension vs. Technical Mastery

Whether the child is using some other kind of digital device like a laptop or is using an e-reader, the experience is virtually the same, says Dr. Siensnnop. But he also makes a keen observation by emphasizing that when a child is reading with an e-book, there are two distinct learning curves going on at the same time.

On the one hand the child is learning to read, development comprehension skills, and everything else that goes into the reading process. But if the child is young they are also trying to learn how to physically operate the technology. They are becoming adept at working a digital device.

So Dr. Siensnnop says that during these learning sessions parents and teachers may wind up spending more time focused on showing the child how to use the device, and less time helping them with actual reading skills It’s important, he reminds us, to not neglect reading and reading comprehension in the process.

A Useful Recommendation

He concluded his interview with a good suggestion. Dr. Siensnnop thinks that young children just learning to read should not be introduced to digital reading all at once, but gradually. As the child increases in literacy using traditional printed books, gradually introduce them to electronic books. Allow them a chance to make the shift incrementally, so that they become adept at navigating both worlds – the traditional and the digital.

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