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Your iPhone addiction will rot your kid's brain: Put your devices away, moms and dads

iPads and other devices aren't really interactive. An expert on the need to read to kids


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Sara Scribner
July 27, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)

For years, parents have been inundated with research about the value of reading with children. There is a prescriptive nature to some of the advice: Administer vitamins, apply sunblock, read the requisite bedtime story. Books as castor oil -- not a great incentive.

But Jason Boog, in his book "Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age — From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between," has a different approach. He illustrates in stark terms why reading is good for kids’ intellectual development, but then he shows how books can be the foundation for a rich, creative relationship with a child.

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"Born Reading" tracks how Boog, a former editor at GalleyCat, tapped into the knowledge of experts and researchers and then set off to create a reading life with his child. Boog took some time between library visits to chat with us from his home in Los Angeles.

You say in the book that you were a born reader and that you worked for a book publishing website, and my guess is that your home is filled with great books. I’m wondering, why were you unsure about instilling a love of reading in your daughter?

Nobody has asked me that one before! It had been 25 years since I looked at a kid’s book so I didn’t know what that world was like -- and I also knew from my own reading habits how dramatically they changed. I had switched almost to completely digital. So I just wasn’t sure what reading would look like for my daughter and I didn’t know what the best way to pass that on to her was. I just started going to the experts to find out more about it.

There are lots of great tips and ways of talking to [kids about their reading]. I think even strong readers might get creative, good ideas about how to engage with reading with their child. It’s much more complicated than just doing the typical questioning — like asking what a character is thinking.

That was actually the biggest surprise for me, the way I had grown up interacting with books. It was more of a passive thing. Parents would sit there with the book and read it to the child. Until I was talking to some of the child development experts who actually developed the interactive reading technique I talk about, I didn’t realize how important it was both for my daughter to have a love of reading and, for the development of her brain, for me to talk to her while reading the book. So there’s a pretty steep learning curve.

I changed pretty dramatically the way I read to my daughter while writing this book. I went from holding it in front of her to starting to point to illustrations before she could really talk to using baby sign language to talk about the book as much as we could. So it was an evolution. I think [among the] the biggest and most important reading tricks I discovered while researching this book, one was actually comparing it to her experiences. We do that on a daily basis. If someone is upset in a book, we say “Hey, have you ever felt upset about that? When did you feel upset like that?” And that sparks so many conversations. And I actually see my daughter now when we are in the supermarket or walking down the street — if she sees something she saw in a book, she will bring it up and she will say “Do you remember that?” And it’s pretty amazing to have that conversation continued that way.

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It seems like what you’re talking about is beyond reading; it’s about sort of forming a bond and communicating and interacting in a way that, in some ways, uses the books as a jumping off point. It seems like it’s about forming this communication.

Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s all about having a conversation with your child about the book and keeping that conversation — extending that conversation into the real world, into everyday life, whether that’s dressing up my daughter like Little Red Riding Hood after we read "Little Red Riding Hood" or even if my daughter likes -- for instance lately she’s been really into "Frozen." She saw the movie. So I found her a Disney book version of that and I also found her “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersen tale it was based on, so we were able to have some wonderful conversations in real life reading the Hans Christian Andersen book, talking about her favorite movie, and also listening to Tchaikovsky’s rendition of that in our car while we’re driving. So it becomes a conversation that we have all day long rather than just at the breakfast table or at bedtime when we’re reading a book.

Wow. One thing that you talked about at the beginning, I think it’s in your introduction, was that while you were working on the book, you hit upon these amazing statistics about how important it is for children to hit the ground reading, even in the womb. Can you just go over some of the research that you’ve come across? What are a few things that you found shocking and really important to impart to other people?

Well, I spent so much time early in my daughter’s life — from the very first weeks reading with her — and people kind of looked at me a little strange. They said “What can she understand? What’s really going on there?” and I found out 25 years ago they found that reading in an interactive manner, like I’ve been discussing here, can actually during those first two to four years of life raise your child’s IQ by six points. That number really shocked me. Just the amount of intellectual change that can happen in a child’s brain during those early years. That really surprised me.

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I was really pleased that, since the book’s been published, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued recommendations telling doctors to start telling parents to read from the very first weeks of life onward. So doctors are now going to be reminding parents that this is important too. I think that was the biggest surprise for me. I realized that if we had known this for 25 years, why didn’t someone just tell me in the hospital that I should be doing this from the very first minute? I’m glad that doctors are now going to be telling parents as well. I think it’s a very important public health issue.

They have nurses train you to change diapers in the hospital. They should have reading trainers coming to people and showing them how to do this.

It’s a really simple, and with librarians, a free way to really help work with your child and make sure they put their best foot forward. I think it’s really important to show everyone how to do it, if possible, from the very first minute.

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It seems to me that a lot of people who are buying this book would already care about reading to kids. They’d already be concerned about it and they’d already have books. (Though they might not know exactly which books to get.) So who do you envision as your readers? Do you see doctors reading it? Do you see just your average parents reading it? When you were writing it, who were you writing it for?

Well, I wrote it primarily for parents. Any parent that’s looking for a little guidance. I think even if you have a lot of books in your house, I know this from talking to a lot of the parents around me in my generation, if you have a lot of books in your house, most people don’t know what the best things to do with digital devices are. How to make sure their children are having a sort of wholesome, intellectual experience with these devices as well as the print reading that’s in their lives, so I worked hard to give those parents some guidance from other development experts about the best apps to use and the best ways to use technology throughout the early years of your child’s life. That’s really important for parents, even if they have books. It’s really important to start thinking about these issues and just looking at the way your child interacts with devices. So that was the first part.

And the second part, I wrote it for librarians. If you can write a book for librarians, I mean, there’s a librarian that meant so much to me in my life and I wanted to share kind of the wisdom I found from other librarians. There are a few I interviewed for the book. So my hope is that it can actually be in libraries so families that might not have books in their house or might not go out to a book store and buy this book might be able to have a chance to check it out and copy some of it for themselves. Last week I was at the American Library Association conference in Las Vegas and spoke to many librarians about all these issues. They feel so strongly about it and they were excited that there was a way to have this conversation and they’re really interested and hoping to have this conversation with parents. So I hope some parents go to the library to find this out.

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Since you brought up librarians, I think one of the things I liked about your vision is that, a lot of people when they talk about librarians, they talk about the nostalgia that they had for what the library represented to them when they were young — this repository for print materials. And I’m wondering, what do you see the role of libraries being now and how do you see it changing since you’ve talked to all these librarians and used expert librarians in this book. How do you see the library evolving to help children, especially, transition into digital readers too?

When I started writing this book, I had absolutely no idea where to look for digital materials for my daughter. And if you go to the Apple app store for instance, it’s a swamp. It’s really hard to tell — to separate the difference between a kid’s app that’s free so they can run advertising on your kids, or a kid’s app that is actually really beneficial. I think [talking to] librarians and going to ALA two weekends ago, I had a lot of conversations about this. Librarians are really active right now in trying to find the best digital materials, whether that’s an e-book or the best app in the app store and basically showing parents how to use them, the best ways to use them, and modeling that even in the library. I’ve talked to librarians who will project iPad screens on the wall so parents can actually see how the app works. Other librarians are using creativity apps to let kids actually make things on the iPad in the room. They’re really leading the charge to remind parents and kids that these are not solitary devices. These are tools that we can all use together and I think parents could learn a lot if they went and spoke to their librarians about digital materials especially. And that’s beyond the benefit that all librarians have of introducing a child to print books. But beyond that, there’s a lot of librarians that are really exploring this new frontier, and we need someone to guide us through it because you can’t do it by yourself. That’s the first thing I figured out.

I wanted to talk to you a bit about digital devices because you, from the very beginning, you talk about it very early on in the book, I think chapter one. And you know I’d have to say that I’m a little bit more skeptical about bringing them into reading early on. I feel like it’s important to build a foundation first. I think you said the first two years should be about print, right?

Yes.

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That’s looking at what doctors have recommended?

Yes. That was the American Academy of Pediatrics, that was their recommendation and I followed that with my daughter. But parents will see it’s very hard. These devices are in our lives every single minute. Adults have no limits. If you start thinking about the habits you are modeling for your child, it’s kind of shocking. You don’t notice how often you use the device until your daughter is saying ‘Why can’t I use that? Let me use that.’ These things have kind of crept into our lives without very much conversation as a culture about the best way to use them, the best way to keep them in our social lives. So yeah, it’s challenging but I recommend that parents try to keep it device-free those first two years. Your child will have an entire lifetime to explore these devices.

There was a study that came out recently, I think it was about six months ago, that said kids that are reading e-books and interactive digital books like reading less than kids who read print books. I think one of the issues was that they’re too easily distracted and move onto something else very quickly when they’re on digital devices. Have you seen any difference in the way kids read on these digital devices versus print books?

I think the biggest thing is, I think the word “interactive” is very misleading. We say “Oh, I want to put some interactive apps on my iPhone for my kid to use. “iPhones are better than television because they’re interactive.” Interactivity, I mean there’s two different meanings. The one meaning of interactive is a device that can interact with its user, and that’s what makes these iPhones so great. It can really interact with you and give you what you need. But for a developing brain, that’s not what they need. They need another human being being interactive with them, they need a human being talking to them. I try to stress this over and over in the book that these digital devices can never, ever replace the printed book. They can never replace the experience of you, the parent or the caregiver, reading to your child. And I just feel, as a culture, we are entering this period where maybe it seems almost appropriate to say “Oh, it’s an interactive app, I’m going to let my child use this while I go over here and do something else” and that is a very crucial mistake and parents have to be very careful that you can bring these digital devices into your child’s life, but make sure the original meaning of interactive — one person speaking to another person — is not lost because that’s what your child’s brain needs more than anything.

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Right. Because they kind of go on autopilot, even when they’re using something that is supposed to be interactive.

Yeah, it’s a solitary experience. You can see it with any child. If you don’t believe me, just give a child a device and see if they want to talk to you. They won’t want to talk with you, they’ll sit there for hours until they fall over and fall asleep. You need to model interactivity — the spoken kind. You need to actively model these behaviors for your child because they won’t learn them themselves from a device.

One thing I noticed with my own son, reading the book I’ve had a lot of the same struggles that you’ve had. My son loves to read, and I feel really grateful because it doesn’t necessarily always work out that way. Even for children of authors and librarians, you know. But one thing that I notice that he’s very into Pokemon right now, and I’ve let him use this Pokemon video game. And I play it with him, so that we can talk about it, kind of the way you describe in the book. And the thing that I’m surprised by is how much reading there is in that game. It’s a different kind of reading but there’s a lot of text that he has to read to go through the game and deal with the challenges that are thrown at him, and a lot of people are saying “Well kids are reading a lot, they’re reading Facebook. They’re reading text messages. They’re reading video games.” I’m wondering, why is the idea of reading narrative and even fictional works even that important right now? Is that something that we need to keep working on when kids are already reading a lot?

That’s a really interesting point. I do feel that narrative, whether print or digital books, is really crucial, crucial for this generation. There’s a few reasons. First is the Common Core curriculum is coming. There’s 44 different states. It’s a revised way of looking at how we teach our kids. As I talk about at the end of the book, the reading comprehension part of that is going to get a lot tougher and there’s going to be a lot more non-fiction, fiction and non-fiction in kid’s lives. But the reading portions are going to be asking a lot more mature questions about how you interact with a narrative or how you decode the information inside of the book. I think, as you are by reading to your child, modeling these behaviors from the earliest possible moment is No. 1, will help your child tell their story and have a lifelong love of reading, but No. 2 is also going to give them this crucial, crucial toolkit that kids growing up in the post-Common Core era are going to need and so I would say that narrative is very important. On the other hand, I do think — I call them reading bundles in the book — just make sure you can have a whole balanced media diet. Your son can play the Pokemon video games, you can also find Pokemon books, or find some of the comic books that helped inspire that years before Pokemon showed up. There’s just a lot of different kinds of media you can bring into your child’s life to make sure they have a balanced diet than just a video game or even just a print book. I think it’s good to have all of these things.

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And I wanted to talk to you about immersive environments, like sort of the immersive experience of reading a work of fiction. You talk also about diversity and how important it is to bring diversity in. And I think that so many people would just be happy to have their kids reading that it's sort of an extra challenge to bring diversity and different perspectives onto the table too. Why do you think immersing yourself in a fictional work is important and then, what do you think is the value of bringing diverse perspectives, books about different countries, different life experiences, different cultures, why do you think that’s so important too?

The United States has never been more diverse than it is at this moment right now. It’s fantastic; we live in Los Angeles, where I could speak Spanish all day if I wanted to. There’s so many different cultures mixing here in my city, and we were in New York City where that was true too — but if you walk down the aisles at the bookstore it’s harder to see that diversity. It’s almost like you need someone to say, “Here are the books that show other perspectives, here are the stories… here’s the book about children growing up in India, here’s the book about Korean-American traditions.” It’s hard to do it by yourself — you really need a list if you go in. I found that myself; I went to Goodreads, actually, in addition to the library that I consulted with, but I needed to go look for a while to make my book list more diverse and more complete. It’s a real challenge. And it’s sad that we live in a culture where you don’t need to travel that far to find how much diversity is in our world, but to find the books it takes a little bit more work. So until we have a world where it’s easier to find that, I think we really as parents need to work hard to make sure they have it.

Yeah, what do you think it does for the kids? How do you think it helps them?

Well, in my daughter’s life, we’re surrounded by Spanish for instance. And yesterday we were reading a Dora the Explorer book with one of her friends, and we were talking about Spanish words, and I do speak Spanish, but I don’t model that enough for her. This tremendous skill, and this beautiful way to communicate with all of these people around her, and I wish I was giving her more of that. So just talking about those words and seeing how much Spanish she picked up from her environment. It was really interesting and it was a great conversation and it’s one we can continue. There are Spanish words on signs all around us, and you hear the radio. And so I feel I’m just helping her navigate her world in a more sophisticated way. And finally we are a multicultural society, it’s just the way the world is, and children should feel comfortable and excited about that and be able to interact with that world as much as they can.

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Right. Yeah, seems like an important thing to talk about now that Walter Dean Myers just passed away… and a couple of months ago he wrote an excellent essay in The New York Times. It’s sort the structural problem. There’s the publishing industry but then we need more people writing books that show different perspectives and it takes extra work to find those books, doesn’t it? I mean you really do have to go seeking them because if you just wait till it falls in your lap you’re going to find the books that are everywhere that represent kind of a very small segment of the world population. So it does take a lot of… you have to care enough about it to do that extra work.

Yeah, this is an example… at the ALA a lot of librarians were trying to think of ways to make sure we have diversity in our digital materials as well because the same problems, probably even worse just because the app stores are still unregulated. It’s really hard to find diverse voices there. And so I interviewed LeVar Burton from "Reading Rainbow" while I was doing this book and he said that was one of the most important things that he wanted to make sure happened in "Reading Rainbow," to make sure that there were diverse voices in there, and reading through his stuff, we do it with my daughter a lot, and there are fantastic books, there’s one about an artist in Detroit who makes things out of junk. He’ll take scrap metal and weld them together. It’s a fascinating book about the life, it’s a fictionalized story about this artist. Another is about a Korean American family and the traditions they have to introduce a baby to the world. And Olive loved these books. And I loved that in "Reading Rainbow" it was all mixed in. You don’t have to go to the diversity section; it’s there. These are books about people. And my daughter didn’t make a distinction, she was choosing from a very diverse menu and there was no work necessary, it was all there.

I also wanted to talk to you about the way parents talk to their kids about reading, because one thing that kind of drives me crazy is this way of approaching reading with children, especially older elementary school and middle school kids, about how good reading is for you, and reading becomes like eating your spinach. And then by the time they become teenagers reading becomes something they really don’t want to do because it’s what their parents want them to do, it’s what the authority figures want them to do. When I was a kid, reading could be kind of dangerous. I mean, the only time I got in trouble in elementary school was because I had a book that a parent got very upset about and so I got called in the principal’s office. So to me reading was powerful. And so it bothers me that some parents are treating reading like a chore. Like do an hour of reading and then you get your video games. I feel like that sets up a bad dynamic and it sets you up to think this is what my parents want me to do, so it must be lame or it must be bad. And I’m wondering, if you’ve thought about that at all, how to reframe the push for reading so that kids aren’t resistant to it?

I have obsessed over that question, actually.

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Me too.

The most interesting thing is… I said this over and over in the book, that reading is something that you model. It’s like eating but showing good manners while you eat. It's something that you do over and over and suddenly you’re doing it yourself and you don’t ever even realize that someone ever modeled it for you. In my own life I always told people I am a reader and I a writer, that was always a very strong part of my identity, and I realized right through the end of writing this book that it wasn’t me at all, it was just my parents doing what I was urging parents to do. My parents modeled this for me. It was my parents’ bookshelves that inspired me to be a reader, and I’ve always taken credit for it, but it’s not, it’s your parents doing that for you. And so it’s really, I think, if you are just modeling this as something that’s a normal everyday thing that people do, it’s just in your life, if they see you reading and if you are reading with them, then it’s not eating your spinach, it’s like breathing, it’s like playing outside, it’s just one other thing that you do. It just becomes a part of the fabric of identity, so much so, that like me, it feels like your choice all along. And it does become your choice as you get older and you continue it, but I really do feel like this thing that I took credit for in my life for so many years, really, I owe a lot more to my parents for this set of behaviors that they modeled for me.

Okay, that’s great. I wanted to, since some of the more heartwarming moments of the book are when you’re talking about your daughter and the things you’re doing with your daughter and how you interact with her as she develops and I’m wondering, first of all, what’s Olive reading now? What’s on her bookshelf now? And how old is she?

She’s going to be 4 in September. She told me over the weekend that her two favorite things in the world are "Frozen" and The Berenstain Bears. So we have been bringing in a steady supply of both of those. We went through “The Snow Queen,” which was one of her "Frozen" influences that we explored. App-wise, the things we’ve been using lately are Toontastic -- it’s kind of a puppet show type app where she can tell her own stories using these characters; it’s pretty awesome. And then Sesame Street Family Play is the other app we were just using it this weekend. We were at Grandpa’s house, she was getting a little bored, and it’s an amazing little app that you turn it on, and it’s a way of using your phone, it will tell you little games you can play in real life rather than playing a game on my phone. So we were having some slow time and I turned it on and it had her pretending to be different kinds of animals, running around the room and interacting with people and it was really great and a very fun experience for both of us.

I love the creative way you’re using these apps. Anything digital, I feel like it’s gonna come anyway, so I’m trying to stave back the flood. We’re definitely more print-oriented, but I really love that you use these tools and you use them so creatively and use them to… bring ideas to the playground where you’re actually playing games away from the digital device but using them as this launching pad.

So important, and it’s going to be a lifelong battle. As parents, for the rest of our lives, it’s going to be this struggle between the solitary experience of app, video game, or even digital book, or the richer, interactive experience you can have if you turn on Sesame Street Family Play, or sit with your child and read the digital book with them.

What about classics? Should we be concerned about bringing classics in? I’ve worked with kids who were reading YA and wanted to take their reading to the next level and read a classic but they just struggled with the language so much.

Oh yeah, I think it’s an awesome opportunity you have, especially if your kids are saying hey, I want to try something more ambitious. I mean, that’s so great, that’s most of the battle right there. But it’s really easy: number one, you use librarians. We were just there this weekend, and I had Olive go up to the librarian at the Pacific Palisades Library and say hey, I want a book about Snow Queens because we had been listening to an audio book version of it, and she wanted to find us two versions. One was kind of a Hans Christian Andersen, a little bit harder, more words version, and then there was a beautiful illustrated version. You have to find out where in the library the classics are for your kids, the level that’s most appropriate for your kid. So that’s my first advice. And then secondly, look to digital materials. See if there is an audiobook version of whatever. I introduced Olive accidentally to the "Tom Sawyer" book, it was an audiobook that I listened to as a kid, but she really liked it, she really liked this audiobook from the 1980s, so she kept listening to it. And then when we went to the library and actually got out the big fat version of "Tom Sawyer" and it had some illustrations in it, and we took some time reading parts of it. We didn’t read the whole thing or anything like that, and it was a really cool introduction to Mark Twain way earlier than I ever imagined bringing Mark Twain into my daughter’s life. But it felt really natural, and then, thanks to the librarians and thanks to these audiobooks, or even apps, I was able to find help making the experience more rich for her. And we did, we eased into it, and it wasn’t that overwhelming for her.


Sara Scribner

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