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Background TV Takes a Toll on Children

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 1, 2012 -- Most Americans love television. Even when we’re not engrossed in a show, TVs are often on as background noise while we cook, clean, eat, and even sleep.

Now a new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that children are being exposed to more TV than we may think, even if no one is sitting down to watch.

“When we saw the numbers, we were just shocked. The sheer amount of exposure is shocking,” says researcher Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, PhD, an associate professor of communication research at the University of Amsterdam.

The study found that children younger than age 8 spend an average of nearly four hours each day near the canned patter of an unattended TV. Children 8 months to 2 years get TV in the background for nearly six hours each day.

Background TV Steals Attention, Focus

The finding is concerning because recent studies show children have a hard time tuning out the particular kinds of noises a TV makes.

“TV has these natural things we call formal features. They are things that elicit our attention -- noises, sounds, voices -- all these different things that make us look over and say, ‘What was that?’” Piotrowski says.

Those noises distract kids when they play. And play, Piotrowski says, “is the work of childhood.” Playing teaches problem solving and communication. Children may fail to fully develop those skills if TV interrupts.

Experiments show that children who play in rooms where a TV is broadcasting an adult show spend less time with individual toys and shift their attention more quickly from one activity to another, compared to how they play when the TV is off.

And even when they aren’t glued to the screen, kids pay less attention to what a parent has to say when a TV is on in the background.

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?”

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