Building healthy reading habits may mean cutting device use

Video may have killed the radio star, but it might be killing children’s books as well—researchers found that frequent screen use by 2 years of age led to less reading time by age 3, which in turn led to even more screen use at 5 years.

Parent-child shared book reading and language exposure is a massive component of children’s educational development, Brae Anne McArthur, PhD, of the University of Alberta and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and colleagues explained in Pediatrics. However, with the proliferation of media devices in the past few decades, screen use is becoming more prevalent among children—and, according to the displacement hypothesis, when children are watching screens, they are less likely to practice the skills necessary for learning and development.

“Although it is possible that screen use interrupts enriching off-line activities such as print book reading, it is also possible that early reading activities may offset later screen use,” McArthur and colleagues wrote. To test this hypothesis, they used a prospective birth cohort to assess reading and screen use at ages 24, 36, and 60 months to determine whether there is a directional association between screen use and reading during early childhood.

Their study results “suggest that higher screen use at 24 months is related to lower reading activities at 36 months, and in turn, lower reading activities at 36 months is associated with greater screen use at 60 months,” they found. But the obverse associations—greater reading at 24 months leading to lower screen time at 36 months and greater reading at 60 months—did not play out.

The findings from this study “support the need for practitioners, childcare professionals, and educators to encourage families to engage in healthy use of screen devices (i.e., limited duration) and to encourage device-free time to establish early reading habits,” they concluded.

In a commentary accompanying the study, Jenny S. Radesky, MD, of Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, noted that, as is the case with many other large cohort studies, “McArthur et al only assessed one dimension of media use: time. Now that media are engineered to engage young viewers through persuasive enhancements, more longitudinal research is needed that interrogates children’s reactions to mobile and interactive design: Are devices coming to bed and meals with them or being grabbed in the moment to calm a tantrum? When young children engage with apps and videos, do they go on ’autopilot’ and expect to follow a frictionless feed, and how does that influence their more friction-full daily interactions with people and learning? Do they take a ’minds-on’ orientation to screen media, as they would a book?”

She added that, as the U.S. government contemplates increasing funding for children and media research via the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, “these types of questions, and implications for the corporate responsibility of the companies designing children’s digital ecosystems, should be prioritized.”

For their analysis, McArthur and colleagues drew participants from All Our Families, a pregnancy cohort of mothers and children in Calgary, Canada, who were recruited from August 2008-December 2010. Inclusion criteria were age 18 years or older, fluency in English, child gestational age less than 25 weeks, and receiving community-based prenatal care. Moms were followed-up at <25 weeks’ gestation and at four, 12, 24, 36, and 60 months post-partum.

The study authors included data from 2,440 mothers and children. At child ages 24, 36, and 60 months, mothers reported child time spent using electronic devices (i.e., watching television programs; watching movies, videos, or stories on a videocassette recorder or digital video disk player; and using a computer, gaming system, or other screen-based device) on a typical weekday and a typical weekend—they were also asked to report time spent reading to their child at age 24 months, time sharing a book at 36 months, and time their child spent reading or looking at books at age 60 months.

“[This] study revealed that greater screen use at 24 months was associated with lower reading at 36 months (β=−0.08; 95% confidence interval: −0.13 to −0.02). In turn, lower reading at 36 months was associated with greater screen use at 60 months (β=−0.11; 95% confidence interval: −0.19 to −0.02),” McArthur and colleagues found. “Covariates did not modify the associations.”

Also, they added that within-time covariances were significant at 24 months and 36 months, but not at 60 months, “suggesting that, on average, at the 24- and 36-month study waves, children’s screen use was significantly related to children’s reading activities (β=−0.10 [95% CI: −0.17 to −0.04] and β=−0.08 [95% CI: −0.13 to −0.03], respectively).”

The study authors noted that their results highlight a few practice and policy implications that warrant consideration:

  • Practitioners, health care workers, parents, policymakers, and educators need to promote adherence to screen use guidelines. McArthur and colleagues pointed out that up to 95% of preschoolers are going over the current screen use guidelines of no more than one hour of screen time per day. To help increase guideline adherence, they recommended devising family media plans and having early discussions with families to prevent unhealthy screen practices before they begin.
  • Early reading routines that aid child development and learning should be established as early as possible and should be included in health discussions with pediatricians. They suggested that discussions focus on the five R’s of early learning: “reading together every day; rhyme and play; developing consistent sleep, eating, reading and play routines; reward with praise; and nurture relationships rich in serve and return interactions.”
  • Policymakers should focus on increasing access to books, programs designed to help at-risk families get connected with literary resources, and broader dissemination of screen use guidelines for children five years of age or younger.

Study limitations included that the study cohort was predominantly high-income and highly educated, which may limit generalizability; that screen use measurements did not capture content or context of screen use; further research is needed to identify the threshold at which screen use influences reading; and that exposure and accessibility of screens likely changed over the course of the study.

  1. Frequent screen use by two years of age led to less reading time by age three, which in turn led to even higher screen use at five years, researchers found.

  2. The findings from this study support the need for practitioners, childcare professionals, and educators to encourage families to engage in healthy use of screen devices and to encourage device-free time to establish early reading habits.

John McKenna, Associate Editor, BreakingMED™

The study authors and Radesky had no relevant relationships to disclose.

Cat ID: 138

Topic ID: 85,138,730,138,43,192,925