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Background TV Takes a Toll on Children

Study Details

For the study, researchers surveyed nearly 1,500 households that had at least one child between 8 months and 8 years old. Parents were asked to give detailed accounts of how their young children had spent the previous day. After parents recounted each activity, researchers followed up with the question, “Was a TV on in the background?”

The answer to that question was more likely to be "yes" when kids were from low-income households, single-parent families, or if their caregivers didn’t have at least a high school education. African-American families were also slightly more likely than whites to have the TV on in the background.

Kids were also more likely to be exposed to background television if they had one in their bedrooms.

The children got most of the background TV exposure during playtime and meals.

Experts who were not involved in the research agree that the findings are alarming.

“These numbers are really staggering,” says Roya Samuels, MD, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

“The more time the television is on, even if it’s just on in the background, the greater risk there is for seeing increased distractibility in our children. It really raises the question of whether or not this is a contributing factor to our rise in ADHD diagnoses,” she says.

Advice for Parents

To help kids, researchers are urging parents to pay more attention to family viewing habits.

“First step, if TV's on and no one is watching, turn it off,” Piotrowski says.

Samuels agrees, adding that parents who turn the TV off are modeling healthy behaviors for their children.

The next suggestion may require more than a little parental backbone, but researchers say it’s important. “Keep TVs out of the kids’ bedrooms. Get them out of the bedrooms if they’re there. If they’re not there, don’t put them in,” Piotrowski says.

Studies have linked the presence of a TV in a child’s bedroom with poor sleep and a higher risk of obesity.

Lastly, Piotrowski says, try to limit the amount of TV you’re watching when a child is around.

“In some ways, parents might just sort of feel like the TV isn’t for the kids. They think young kids don’t understand it. They’re playing, and I’m watching something.”

But the kids are being affected, even if they’re not interested.

“If they’re in a room and they’re not viewing TV, can we turn it off? So whatever activity they're engaging in they can engage in that more fully? I think that’s something we would hope to see,” she says.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against television exposure in children 2 and younger. Older children should be limited to supervised viewing of no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs, the AAP advises.

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