Does Background TV Make Kids Lose Focus?

Having Television On in the Background Can Disrupt Playtime, Study Shows

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 15, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

July 15, 2008 -- Parents often watch their favorite television show while young ones play nearby. But is that background TV affecting your child as he or she plays with toys, even if they don't seem to be interested in the program?

A new study shows that even having the television on in the background can disrupt toddlers as they play with toys, causing them to lose focus during play.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts looked at 50 children, aged 1 to 3 years.

Children came to a laboratory playroom with a parent. Each child was invited to play with toys for an hour. During half of that time a television was turned on remotely in the room, playing an episode of Jeopardy! that included commercials.

During the other half hour, the television was turned off.

Each child was videotaped and observed by researchers during the study period. Parents were in the room with the child but instructed not to play with their child or encourage the child to play.

Here is what researchers found:

  • When the TV was on, the amount of time spent on toy playing was shorter. This was the case even if the toddlers didn't seem to be interested in the game show. The more a child peeked at the TV, the more it affected the child's toy play.

In a news release, researcher Marie Evans Schmidt said "background TV, as an ever-changing audiovisual distractor, disrupts children's efforts to sustain attention to ongoing play behaviors."

Schmidt is a research associate at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston.

"Background TV is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children. Parents should limit their young children's exposure to background television."

In background information published alongside the findings, researchers write that child development experts contend that imaginative play is crucial to healthy cognitive and social skills development.

Researchers from this study speculate that constant background TV sound and fleeting images may interrupt that healthy development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen media for children under age 2.

The findings appear in the July/August issue of Child Development.

Show Sources


Schmidt, M. Child Development, July/August 2008; vol 79, Issue 4.

News release, Society for Research and Child Develpment.

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