Early Literacy Research Library (ELRL) - Article

Longitudinal Associations Between Screen Use and Reading in Preschool-Aged Children

McArthur, B.A., Browne, D., McDonald, S., Tough, S., Madigan, S. (2021) Longitudinal Associations Between Screen Use and Reading in Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics, 147(6), e2020011429.,

Access: FREE/Open Access

Publication year


study description

Prospective birth cohort.

core topic(s)

Shared Reading

Population Characteristics

International , Pregnancy/Postpartum , Toddler/Preschool

Exposures, Outcomes, Other

Child Behaviors and Skills , Parent Behaviors and Skills , Reading Frequency , Technology and Digital/Screen-Based Media


To understand whether screen use impacts off-line enrichment activities such as reading or whether reading activities offset screen use.


Screen use and reading activities.

outcomes evaluated

Screen use and reading activities.


Participants were from All Our Families, a pregnancy cohort of 3388 mothers and children from Calgary, Canada.


Using a prospective birth cohort, we examined reading and screen use at 24, 36, and 60 months to elucidate the directional association between screen use and reading over time. This study included data from 2440 mothers and children in Calgary, Alberta, drawn from the All Our Families cohort. Children’s screen use and reading activities were assessed via maternal report at age 24, 36, and 60 months. Sociodemographic covariates were also collected.

sample size

n=2440 (mothers and children)


Measure of Screen Use: maternal-report of the following activities on typical weekday and weekend days at three time points (24 months, 36 months, and 60 months):

    • Range of time their child spent using electronic devices (ie, watching television programs; watching movies, videos, or stories on a videocassette recorder or digital video disk player).
    • Range of time their child spent using a computer, gaming system, or other screen-based device).

Measure of Reading Activities: maternal-report of the following reading activities at three time points (24 months, 36 months, and 60 months) using a 4-point Likert scale:

    • 24 Months: “Do you or another adult of the household read to your child or show him/her picture books?” (from (1) never to (4) daily).
    • 36 Months: “How many minutes each day do you spend sharing books with your child?” (from (1) 0 to 10 minutes to (4) ≥30 minutes).
    • 60 Months: “How many hours per day does your child spend doing the following activities outside of child care, preschool, or school: Read or look at books?” on a typical weekday and weekend day (from (1) none or 0 minutes to (4) ≥3 hours).


Using a random-intercepts cross-lagged panel model, which statistically controls for individual-level confounds, this study revealed that greater screen use at 24 months was associated with lower reading at 36 months (β = −.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 = −.11; 95% confidence interval: −0.19 to −0.02). Covariates did not modify the associations.


A reciprocal relationship between screen use and reading was identified. Early screen use was associated with lower reading activities, resulting in greater screen use at later ages. Findings emphasize the need for practitioners and educators to discuss screen use guidelines and encourage families to engage in device-free activities to foster early literacy exposure.


First, this study included a predominantly high-income, highly educated sample of participants, which may limit generalizability to other populations. Second, the method of measurement used for screen use did not capture the content (eg, educational programing) or context (eg, solitary versus coviewing) of screen use. Presumably, families vary on the content and context in which screens are used, and these elements of screen use may have a different association with language and literacy. Third, although this study reveals an association between screen use and reading, further research is needed to determine the specific threshold at which screen use influences reading. Fourth, because of the rapid progression of technology, exposure and accessibility to screens may have changed over the course of this multiwave study. Additionally, although parents are arguably the best informants of child activities between 24 and 60 months, single-informant measurement introduces the potential for bias. With regards to reading, a single item was used to capture the frequency of reading activities at each time point. Although the reading items were designed to reflect the natural progression of reading activities across early childhood, single-item measurement at each time point provides fewer points of discrimination and potentially limits the sensitivity, or variation, in the measure. This study would be strengthened by more detailed measurement of the home reading environment, including parent literacy skills and objective measures of parent-child shared reading experiences (eg, conversational turns, parent engagement, etc).