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 focusing on another activity? 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’s results were staggering: the average child from 8 months to 8 years old was exposed to 232 minutes (nearly four hours) of background TV each day.

Why Background TV Is Harmful

Research shows that ambient noises like background television can interfere with a person’s cognitive processing. These kinds of noises pull your attention away from whatever you are doing at the moment, even if you don’t realize it. “These frequent disruptions are linked to poorer academic and cognitive outcomes,” says Deborah Linebarger, associate professor of education at the University of Iowa and a coauthor of the study. Dan Anderson, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, also found that background TV reduces the quality and duration of children’s play, as well as limits the number and quality of interactions between the child and available parent—not quite what we’re hoping for when raising our kids.

The study also found that children ages 2 and under are exposed to even more background television than older children—five and a half hours a day. This is especially concerning because very young children are just learning how to sustain attention, and background television can interfere with the learning process. This raises questions about whether an increase in background television is connected with rising attention problems that we’ve seen in recent years.

What You Can Do

Here are some suggestions from the authors of the study to help reduce the amount of background TV your child is exposed to:

  • Be aware of how much background television is on in your home, Lapierre advises, and make a point to turn off the tube when no one is watching it.
  • Take the television out of your child’s bedroom. By some estimates, close to half of all children have a television in their bedroom.
  • Keep mealtime and bedtime TV-free. Spend these times interacting with your child without the television on in the background.
  • Help your child develop healthy viewing habits. Linebarger compares healthy viewing habits with healthy eating habits. She believes it’s important to teach your child moderation and the importance of turning the TV off when you’re not watching it intentionally. Sit down with your child, watch a high-quality show that you’ve chosen beforehand, and then turn off the TV when the show ends.
  • Don’t worry about background music. According to Linebarger, background music doesn’t have the same adverse effect on concentration. “My guess is that we have different expectations about music,” Linebarger explains. “We don’t really look at music. But we know how the TV works, and we know this from a very young age—that there are strange sounds and that usually these sounds are paired with interesting visuals.”

The bottom line? Turn off the television unless you really want it on. That way, your child will be able to focus his attention on thinking, playing and interacting with others without any interference.