Are Kids Picking Up More from a TV in the Background Than We Think?

The television is on and the kids are in the room. But they’re not watching. They’re doing something else. Bad?

I don’t know. I’ve seen people cite studies linking background TV with less sustained attention during play and lower-quality interactions between parents and kids. But duh. These same studies were measuring what happens while the TV is turned on. It would be pretty weird if parents and kids managed to totally ignore the TV, wouldn’t it?

What’s more worrying is whether or not background TV has lasting negative effects. Do kids exposed to background TV show developmental delays or ongoing behavioral problems?

Here, I expect, common sense offers some answers. If your child is being exposed to distressing adult content – like what we might find on an evening newscast – that could upset him and keep him awake at bedtime. If the TV noise is distracting kids from learning and studying, then obviously that’s bad too. And if parents and caregivers watch so much TV they aren’t interacting with the kids who need them, we’ve got more problems.

So what do we make of today’s news? The Journal of Pediatrics is reporting the results of a telephone survey of more than 1400 American parents and other caregivers of kids under the age of 8.

The goal was to create time diaries for the previous day. What had the kids been doing over the last 24 hours, and how often were they exposed to background TV?

The results, according to study author Matthew Lapierre and his colleagues, were startling. “The average US child was exposed to 232.2 minutes of background television on a typical day,” but exposure depended a lot of age.

Whereas the oldest kids (6-8 year olds) experienced about 2.75 hours of background TV, children under 24 months were expose to twice that amount – 5.5 hours.

The researchers note that this “tremendous” amount of background TV “easily dwarfs foreground TV exposure.” They recommend that we tell parents to turn off the TV when nobody is watching.

Which seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? I’ve always had an aversion to background TV during the daytime myself. Nothing snobby or anti-TV about it. It just makes me feel like a shut-in, a cave dweller missing out on real life.

But I don’t find it strange that many adult caretakers are leaving their televisions on. Particularly if they are stuck in their homes with babies and toddlers under the age of 24 months. Many caregivers are so isolated from the hustle and bustle of other adults, they might as well be shut-ins or cave dwellers. People living like this – in a world where baby-care means staying indoors, alone and cut off from the rest of the adult world – are bound to feel alienated. They may feel a loss of identity. They may be bored.

This is such a common fate in many places, we take it for granted. But if you take an anthropological perspective on infant care, it’s really rather weird. For most of human history we lived…

Read more: Gwen Dewar PhD, Baby Center


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