Background TV Takes a Toll on Children

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 28, 2012

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?”

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.

Show Sources


Lapierre, M. Pediatrics, Oct. 1, 2012.

News release, Pediatrics.

Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, PhD, associate professor, Department of Communication Research, The University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Roya Samuels, MD, pediatrician, Cohen Children’s Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Where We Stand: TV Viewing Time."

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