Early life screen time tied to less reading and more screen use at later ages

Last updated: 06-13-2021

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Early life screen time tied to less reading and more screen use at later ages

(Reuters) – Children who have more screen time at 24 months read less at 36 months, which is in turn associated with more screen use by 60 months, a Canadian study suggests.

Researchers examined data from a pregnancy cohort of 2,440 mothers who gave birth in Calgary, Canada, and their children. Participants reported how much time their children spent on a range of reading activities such as looking at books or listening to stories read aloud, as well as a range of screen activities such as watching videos or playing games.

Mean weekly hours of screen use at 24 months was 17.07 hours, compared with 3.92 hours of reading activities, researchers report in Pediatrics. Mean weekly reading hours slipped to 2.61 hours at 36 months, and 2.48 hours at 60 months, while mean weekly screen time rose to 24.90 hours at 36 months then dipped to 10.84 hours at 60 months.

On average, children’s reading activities and screen use were stable across consecutive time points in the study. After accounting for this, researchers found that higher screen usage at 24 months was associated with significantly less reading at 36 months (beta = -0.08), and that lower reading activity at 36 months was associated with more screen time at 60 months (beta = -0.11).

“Our results emphasize the importance of establishing early print book reading and healthy screen use routines, both factors known to be foundational for child development and learning,” said lead study author Dr. Brae Anne McArthur of Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the University of Calgary.

“It also reaffirms the need for early discussion of reading and screen use in pediatric offices,” Dr. McArthur said by email.

One limitation of the study is that the pregnancy cohort was a predominantly high-income, well-educated group, and outcomes may not be generalizable to other populations, the study team notes. Another limitation is that researchers were unable to distinguish between educational screen time, such as educational programming, and other types of screen usage, which might have influenced the results.

Even so, the finding that increased screen time at 24 months is associated with increased screen time at 60 months is in line with nearly all parenting research that indicates that parenting behaviors and habits are formed early on and then maintained or intensified over time, said Dr. Katherine Tombeau Cost, a research associate in the Neurosciences & Mental Health program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

“So, if a parent is using screen time in place of books in these situations, and the child responds favorably to screen time in these situations, then the parent will continue to use screen time rather than looking for alternatives, such as reading,” Dr. Cost, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

To effectively reduce screen time, pediatricians should offer parents behaviors and activities that can effectively replace screen time instead of simply warning against technology use, said Dr. Tiffany Munzer of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“Based on the results of this study, if parents are wishing to reduce their child’s screen media consumption, one approach a clinician could take is to encourage joint reading and early reading habits, which may then ‘displace’ some early screen media time,” Dr. Munzer, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Early on, children benefit from a bevy of other developmentally-enriching activities to complement this too, such as pretend play and running around on a playground.”

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