While a preference for traditional print books over an enhanced e-book counterpart may often stem from good old-fashioned nostalgia, a new study led by developmental behavior scientists at the University of Michigan suggests using e-books to read stories to your child can result in less conversation and lower-quality interactions.

"Reading together is not only a cherished family ritual in many homes but one of the most important developmental activities parents can engage in with their children," says Jenny Radesky, senior author on the new research.

This important parent-child activity not only helps broaden literacy and language skills but also serves as an important bonding experience. Considering how pervasive tablets and e-books are, the researchers were interested in understanding how different mediums alter the value and quality of the experience.

The researchers dressed a laboratory environment to resemble a living room and enlisted 37 parent-toddler pairs. Each pair was observed as they read books in three different formats: print books, conventional e-books, and enhanced e-books that contained features such as sound effects. Verbal and non-verbal interactions between the parent and child were monitored as each pair experienced the different book formats.

The results were starkly clear, with verbal interactions between parent and child decreasing when using either form of e-book. The study revealed e-books and enhanced e-books altered both the activity of the parent and the child's response to the experience. Parents using enhanced e-books, for example, asked fewer prompting questions to a child while reading, and what conversation there was tended to more frequently be about the device and the technology, instead of the story and characters.

"Parents strengthen their children's ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children's lived experiences," says lead author in the study Tiffany Munzer. "Research tells us that parent-led conversations are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media."

Instead of turning the study into a one-dimensional "technology is bad" treatise, the researchers recommend the next stage for their work is to understand what technological aspects of an e-book experience could actually enhance a parent-child interaction. It is suggested that any technological enhancement to a traditional print book must not detract from the value of a parent-child reading experience.

The researchers also suggest parents not be afraid of reading e-books with their child, but to be aware of keeping the focus on interaction and conversation while avoiding too much commentary on the distracting nature of the technology itself.

The new research was published in the journal Pediatrics.