With the widespread prevalence of tablets and smartphones, young children have more ways to access and view media than ever before. Children’s storybooks have stepped into the digital realm with screen-based stories that feature audio, illustrations, or animations as a high-tech alternative to traditional picture books.

But what is really going on in a child’s brain when engaging with these different types of stories? And are stories in one format better suited for learning and development? New research by John S. Hutton, a pediatrician at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, explores such questions in a small group of children aged 3 to 5, during which brain networks involved in reading are still in development. He presented his results during the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in May 2018.

As a clinical researcher with the hospital’s Reading & Literacy Discovery Center, Hutton looks at how a child’s home reading environment during the first 5 years of life influences future literacy skills. Important factors include children’s access to books, how often adults read to them, and interactivity between adults and children during story time. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices in today’s homes, he also wanted to investigate whether a child’s brain responds differently to so-called enhanced stories with cartoon animations.

“With the emergence of different portable devices, many children’s stories are now fully animated or have animated features,” said Hutton. “But how does the animation of a story affect how a child’s brain processes the information as compared to hearing a story through audio or reading a picture book?”

Hutton and his colleagues scanned 27 preschool-age children with fMRI while presenting three 5-minute stories in different formats by the same author. For the audio condition, the child looked at a blank screen while listening to the story being read out loud. The illustrated condition involved hearing the audio-track of a story accompanied by still pictures projected on the screen. Lastly, the child was shown a fully animated cartoon.

For the audio condition, the children had increased bilateral activation for brain regions associated with language as opposed to just the left hemisphere — an indication of cognitive strain while trying to process the story. Compared to the illustrated condition, the audio story saw less connectivity among areas involved in visual processing, learning, and reflection.

The animated condition saw a striking drop in overall connectivity among the brain networks relative to the other formats. Instead, increased activation was observed in regions linked to visual perception, suggesting that the children were focused on trying to keep track of what was happening in the fast-moving animation.

“We saw a sort of ‘Goldilocks effect,’ meaning that at this age, the audio condition seems to be a little too cold for the optimal integration of these brain networks. There’s a little more strain on the language network, so they probably do need more of a visual anchor,” Hutton said. “The animated condition seems a little too hot, with the images moving too quickly, and it shuts down the networks.”

While Hutton admits that the ideal scenario for learning and development is still the tried-and-true, device-free method of an adult reading to a child and talking through the story together, an illustrated story with audio proved to be “just right” for children in this study when compared to the other formats.

“The pictures provided just enough visual scaffolding to assist the child while still encouraging active imagery and reflection.”

For those children who were exposed to the illustrated story with audio condition, the fMRI scans revealed a well-balanced integration of brain regions tied to visual perception, learning, and reflection. In addition, Hutton saw a decrease in connectivity with the language network, pointing to a decrease in the amount of strain in that region.

The pictures provided just enough visual scaffolding to assist the child while still encouraging active imagery and reflection. In turn, the animated cartoon had too much visual scaffolding and rendered using one’s own imagination less necessary.

“At the age when these brain networks are still developing, there seems to be a real appeal for the illustrated story format where the child can still bring their imagination into play,” Hutton said. “It seems to be the optimal ecosystem to hopefully promote brain development.”

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