Background TV exposure may harm children's development

Background TV – the kind young children don’t watch but experience because the television is on – is linked to problems with play, parent-child relationships, and cognitive performance. A new study in the journal “Pediatrics” suggests that kids are exposed to 4 hours of background television a day.

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We know, we know. You’ve heard all about the dangers of “screen time” for your children, and have seen all those statistics about how much television the average American toddler watches any given day.

(Hint: in 2006, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children 6 months to 6 years watch television for an average of about an hour a day, although more recent studies have come up with much higher numbers.)

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But have you thought about what happens when Junior isn’t watching, but the television is still on?

Recent studies have identified links between this sort of background television exposure and everything from lower sustained attention during playtime, lower quality parent-child interactions and reduced performance on cognitive tasks, write researchers in an article published today online in the journal “Pediatrics.”

And as it turns out, these researchers found, there’s a lot of background television in the homes of young children.

“The amount of exposure for the average child is startling,” writes authors Matthew Lapierre, Jessica Taylor Piotrowski ,and Deborah Linebarger.

The average US child was exposed to 232.2 minutes of background television on a typical day, according to the study – that’s just under 4 hours.  For some demographics that number went up even further, with children from the poorest families exposed to nearly 6 hours of background TV on a typical day, African American children exposed to more background TV (5.5 hours) than white children, and children living in single-parent homes exposed to more background television (just over 5 hours) than those kids in multi-parent homes (3.5 hours).

Also, the younger the child, the greater the background television exposure.

Researchers found that children under 24 months were exposed to 5.5 hours of background television a day, while children between 6 and 8 years old are exposed to about 2.75.  They speculated that this might be because parents at home with infants are, well, bored. And that perhaps a parent watching television figures that her baby isn’t absorbing whatever is on the screen.

Still, this finding about very young children “is particularly startling when considering how much attention is paid to reducing direct exposure for children in this age group,” the researchers write.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two not watch any televised content; the authors of this new study theorize that anti-screen efforts might do better to focus on indirect television exposure rather than on keeping kids from actually watching programs.

These numbers come from a national telephone survey of 1,454 parents or caregivers with one child between the ages of 8 months and 8 years. Parents used a 24-hour-time diary to report on the child’s exposure to background television. 

Although the researchers recommend quite a bit of follow-up research, they do have a couple of clear recommendations: One, don’t let your kid have a television in his or her room. That’s one of the biggest indicators both of television viewing and background television exposure. 

And two: when you’re not watching, turn off the tube. 

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