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You’re proud of yourself for limiting your child to just 20 minutes of television a day, and rightfully so. But did you ever think about the television that she might be exposed to when she’s not actively watching? According to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, this type of television exposure, called background television, may be more common—and more harmful—than you think.
The study examined children between the ages of 8 months and 8 years old to see just how much background television they watched. It defined “background television” as television that a child was exposed to while focusing on another activity. For example, if a child plays a board game with an adult, and a TV is playing in the background, she’s “watching” background television. (Note that if a child were eating in front of a TV, that’s not considered background television, since the child is still actively watching.)
The results were staggering: The average child was exposed to 232 minutes (nearly four hours) of background TV each day. That’s almost four times the average of foreground television that children watch each day.
Why Background TV Is Harmful
Research shows that background noises, such as highway traffic or low-flying airplanes, can interfere with a person’s cognitive processing. These noises pull your attention toward them and away from whatever you are doing at the moment, even if you don’t realize it. Background television works the same way. “These frequent disruptions are linked to poorer academic and cognitive outcomes and deficits in executive function,” says Deborah Linebarger, associate professor of education at the University of Iowa and a coauthor of the study. “We believe that background television continually recruits children’s attention through its combination of dialogue, auditory sound effects, music and other auditory features.”
Linebarger isn’t the only one with these findings. Dan Anderson, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, examined the effects of background television on young children. He found that background TV reduces the quality of children’s play, causes it to last for a shorter duration, and limits the number and quality of interactions between the child and an available parent—not quite what we’re hoping for when raising our kids.
The Littlest Watchers
Another fascinating discovery from this study is that children ages 2 and under are exposed to even more background television than older children—five and a half hours a day. Why is this so? According to Matthew Lapierre, another coauthor of the study, one reason may be that parents who are at home with very young children overcome any resulting boredom or loneliness by using the TV as background noise. A second possibility is that parents don’t believe that very young children are really paying attention to the TV when it’s on in the background (i.e., while the adult is watching it).
This is especially concerning because very young children are just learning how to sustain attention, and background television can interfere with the learning process. Could this be one cause of the rising attention problems that we’ve seen in recent years? No one can say, and yet the idea is frightening.