Do Screens Belong in Library Storytimes for Young Children? Response to ALSC Blog

| June 22, 2013 | 4 Comments

An exceptional blog from an exceptional group of librarians …

A few days ago, a guest post in the ALSC Blog about how “The Screen Free Storytime is the Best Storytime” really got me ‘all riled up’. The post is from Kathy Kleckner, a children’s librarian for Dakota County Libraries at their Rosemount branch. She has worked as a librarian on a bookmobile,  in elementary schools and in urban systems.  She is a member of the Minnesota Library Association and ALSC. 

I posted a very long response in the comments to this post, which is reproduced here.

It represents two diverging opinions that exist within the library community … but also represents a wider discourse happening in the world of professionals who work with children. Should we be promoting book apps, ebooks and other digital content as legitimate reading for children, or are print books ‘superior’ in some way?

Should we be guiding families about wise media use or simply discouraging it altogether? There are some strong opinions about this right now and I think the attention on children’s media consumption is really valuable. I must admit that I also have some very strong opinions myself, about this. Do you think my comments were too harsh? What is your opinion on how adults should interpret this seismic change in the environment that most of our kids inhabit?

… And I also must agree with Kelly Doolittle – who responded to say:

Okay, so Librarians aren’t Cave People!

“My! After reading Carisa’s lengthy response, I’d just like to add that I did not feel as though Kathy was suggesting librarians were “cave people” at all! You can be a thoroughly modern person and not feel the need to use techie gadgets during storytimes. That said, I agree that they can be used effectively. Just like with any other storytime extenders, it depends on the person using them.”

So … The part about ‘cave people’ might have been going a bit too far on my part, but it does feel sometimes like there is this ‘black and white’ thinking happening around digital media – that it must be ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’ with nothing in between. When we feel passionate about something, it can be easy to over-step but sometimes this can provoke just the kind of dialogue we all need – to challenge us all to grow within our field. This type of dichotomy is often a trigger for me, since this type of thinking is usually not very useful, but I apologize in advance for the errors I may have made in my passion to respond to Kathy’s post (and I deeply respect her voice on this matter – it is representative of a significant feeling within the several disciplines that work closely and care deeply about children’s welfare.)

But YOU, dear reader, can be the ultimate judge:

From Kathy Kleckner’s post - The Screen Free Story Time is the Best Story Time:
Traditional activities and materials in story times are superior to screen use because they: 
  • have a long and excellent record of experience and ample research showing they support early literacy development that screen use does not have

  • are more widely and cheaply available to all families so that they may be repeated at home

  • fully support parents who want to limit screen time for their children according to AAP Guidelines

  • avoid the risk of adding screen time for children who already have screen time in excess of AAP health standards for children

  • more effectively support and encourage adult-child relationships by relying more on human interaction compared to screen time

  • promote healthy physical activity that screen time does not

Comments on Blog Posts Are Always Good for Discussion, Right?!?

And my response:

My background is actually in social science research. As a social worker, I had a number of courses that covered developmental psychology as well as working directly in maternal and child health studies for a decade at the Univ. of Washington.
First of all, I’m appalled at the paternalism of this post most of all. The tone of this article reminds me of the response I got from one librarian I asked about book apps in 2010. She literally rolled her eyes and suggested several print books with the comment that ‘screen time is bad for kids’. And as a result I decided it was up to me to try to provide a decent resource for parents. I spent nearly a decade doing home visits for research projects (across all income levels) and a lot of families had the TV on constantly and nary a book to be found. When I first read a book app on my iPad with my preschooler it was eye-opening. I immediately imagined a way to get all those reluctant families I used to work with to finally incorporate reading into their existing parenting styles. I was shocked that no one else saw this potential. Reading a digital Dr. Seuss book helped my child be even more exited about finding the same title in print. And we started to read even more as a family, in print and digital, almost immediately.
A library is a public institution that is, in many ways, no different than other community service organizations. It is charged with ‘serving’ the ‘community’. Period. This means creative programming is needed to draw in and engage people with a wide variety of values and lifestyles. Of course each organization has deeper goals – many programs I worked for did outreach to prevent youth violence, teen pregnancy, drug abuse or to inspire pro-social values, family stability, educational attainment, etc. We designed programs that people wanted to attend, voluntarily, but did have educational goals once we got them into the building. I could never teach a parenting class, for instance, and expect to draw families in by being hostile to their current practices, even if I wished to change them (a good example would be families that spank for discipline – a very controversial issue in family outreach services).
I’m no expert on how librarians conduct storytime, but I was a heavy user of these programs when my son was young. The experience was most likely the reason I named my site Digital Storytime in the first place, actually. Libraries are sacred to me as are books in every format. But I’m realistic about what it takes to get kids & families engaged … and not just the families that are the ‘low hanging fruit’. To effectively inspire behavioral change we have to first create a connection and meet families where they are, not where we’d like them to be (and I agree that kids are, by and large, getting way too much unsupervised time in front of a variety of screens). But a librarian demonstrating ‘wise’ use of media, with extension activities, co-viewing suggestions and more, for an audience of young kids and their caregivers? That is not among the type of ‘screen time’ I would want to see restricted.
Simply believing something strongly or wishing to push a personal value on the people you serve is not helpful, not even close. You can represent it as a personal philosophy or slip “imho” at the end of a diatribe like this, but to say it in a way that sounds like a professional mission statement is irresponsible and deeply offensive. It’s also culturally insensitive. And don’t even get me started on the AAP. They have been entirely worthless for over a decade on this issue – they are afraid of their own shadows and a deeply political organization. And they’re doctors for goodness sake – how much developmental psychology do you think THEY get in school … about as much as they get for bedside manner and nutrition (one class at best). Being doctors doesn’t make them remotely good at policy positions on digital media for children (imho).

Photo from NYT Article: Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest

The reports, even in the popular press, after the 2011 AAP presentation (and failure to address new media) were not flattering – From the NYT: “The worry that electronic entertainment is harmful to development goes back at least to the advent of radio and has steadily escalated through the age of “Gilligan’s Island” and 24-hour cable TV to today, when nearly every child old enough to speak is plugged in to something while their parents juggle iPads and texts. So far, there is no evidence that exposure to any of these gadgets causes long-term developmental problems, experts say.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/health/19babies.html?_r=0]

If one reads deeper into the existing research, it is much more nuanced and clear that:
quality matters more than quantity
not all screens are equal
co-viewing is important
modeling is powerful
And that media literacy is valuable (especially to families who use libraries b/c they don’t have access to high tech any other way). The imposition of these values on low income families in particular, who are so dependent on libraries for access to all media (in all formats, including dead tree books) is especially unfair. I shrugged off the librarian’s disapproval and just felt bad about myself for a couple days before I got angry and decided to do the job myself. The young parents I worked with in my years as a school social worker would simply not come back.
Having a black & white message for parents as if librarians are cave people saying, ‘media bad’ ‘books good’ is insulting to the whole library profession (imho). And did I mention it’s paternalistic. Yeah … it really is, so it’s worth repeating. It goes against most of the training I have had in treating populations I serve with respect. It also shows that someone is only talking and not really listening, not taking in new information from others with respect for the source. This kind of rigid thinking doesn’t invite dialog or understanding or help anyone change their existing thinking about digital media, screen time and reading. It only serves to divide people more deeply into one camp or the other.
And this is simply untrue (in my experience): “Traditional activities and materials in story times are superior to screen use because they are more widely and cheaply available to all families so that they may be repeated at home”. In fact, digital book apps are often free or just a few dollars each, many low income families have smart phones now (although no computer at home or internet access beside the phone) and over time this ‘device saturation’ is projected to flood almost all strata of society, especially the young. And what about geographically isolated families? Digital devices offer access in ways print materials can never approximate. To say ‘traditional’ or print materials/formats are superior is short-sighted at best.
I am not suggesting print isn’t amazing – but kids who read digital books read more overall (including print books) for fun according to recent research. [http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/press-release/new-study-kids-reading-digital-age-number-kids-reading-ebooks-has-nearly-doubled-2010] It’s not either/or and sending a subtle or not-so-subtle message of disapproval only drives people away from the library and everything it has to offer. I guess I just wish every line in this post was proceeded with “I believe that …” and followed up with “This is why I feel this way …”. These are very valid opinions, but they were stated more as fact, with very little research to back them up.
So, here are some of my opinions as a counterpoint, based on my personal experiences with both print and digital books and many years working with children & families. Ways books on tablet devices MAY increase children’s literacy, not decrease:
  • They offer a rare alternative to other digital media, right on a highly desirable digital device and in a way that actually gives books a fighting chance to be equally appetizing to our media-savvy kids.
  • They are the only way digital media for kids, an already growing category of time in our children’s daily lives, might truly give back by sharing time with reading.
  • Most book apps have a ‘Read Myself’ option and even when they don’t, anything with a text story can always be muted and still have some of the magic of the iPad by having high resolution, back-lit illustrations. This means books at bedtime, a naturally dimly lit environment, can be particularly enchanting just from the color and light.
  • Tired parents can more easily have a book read to both parent and child and may share more books with their kids as a result. Instead of 1 or 2 books at bedtime, a parent can share 3 or 4, for instance, which is no small thing in the lifetime of an early reader’s experience.
  • In households that are not reading to children (1 in 5), these ebook apps represent one of the most realistic ways to quickly increase exposure to children’s picture books by children not even in school yet. The ease of use, instant gratification and reasonable prices for digital book apps, in addition to their high-tech appeal, makes the transition to reading easier for families that haven’t been reached by our otherwise extensive efforts to increase young children’s literacy.
  • In households that don’t read enough to their kids, likely more than the 1 in 5 figure, digital book apps in particular can reach more families than ever with a product that feels cutting edge while delivering on most of the old-fashioned goals of reading.
From: How Will iPad Picture Books Affect Young Reader’s Literacy?
Thank you for inspiring this discussion. I think it is way overdue and goes beyond storytime and libraries.
Respectfully,
Carisa Kluver, MSW
Founder – Digital-Storytime.com
Blog – DigitalMediaDiet.com

Category: All About Apps, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (4)

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  1. Julie says:

    There is actually a lot of research emerging about how the design of digital storybooks or book apps can influence motivation, independence in reading, comprehension and phonological awareness. A lot of good design appeared a lot longer ago that the past few years in early computer-assisted instruction (CAI) programs designed to support early literacy in emergent readers. Some studies even proved that CAI designs actually were highly effective because of the consistency of the instruction, high motivation of the child with the technology and independence. That said – studies on independent and shared digital reading of e-storybooks are showing that there are benefits to both activities – just like in the use of a regular print book. Handing a non reader a book only elicits so much cognitive reading experience – hearing the same print book read and experiencing the mediating variable of interaction between the experienced reader and child is where a lot of early literacy skill development lies. Digital storytime does not throw the baby out with the bathwater – instead it offers a rich early literacy experience that combines traditional activities with new technologies that are very real facets of our the lives of today’s children. What better place than in an adult scaffolded story time to expose children to a range of literacy skills? Librarians must accept changing definitions of literacy – remember, the book itself was a threat to the oral tradition – but that still lives in storytime, so why can’t books and digital artifacts live there too?

  2. philip says:

    In every revolution, there are reactionaries. The positions and opinions that authority figures still working from within the “old” social structures are the most common weapons used by others who fear and resist change.

    The AAP states: “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

    Consider the following example: Based on advice from the AAP, a mother doing her daily yoga practice by following along with an instructional program on television, should block her infant from seeing the screen. Should she also shield her child from the audio portion of the program as well, or is it just “screens” that damage developing brains?

    The sad truth is that though the majority of Americans have been rendered literate through public education, they have simultaneously been programmed to robotically obey authority. We are a nation of sheep, mindlessly following the herd in everything we do.

    If our goal is a society with healthy, thriving children growing up to become thriving and fulfilled adults, I would argue that the single most important skill that they need to learn is critical thinking, and along with it, the courage to question authority.

    Carisa, your reply and follow-up article resonates with what is alive in me about hope for the future of our species. It is evidence that rational thought is not extinct.

    • Thank you for your comments … I too hope that rational thought will not die out in our species – I’m a big believer in evolution and I think this industry will make much more sense in as little as a decade … right now, however, it seems pretty murky.

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