Numerous studies have been critical of TV-watching, saying too much contributes to childhood obesity and, depending on the content, increases aggressive behavior. Now, new research suggests that it's not just what and how often kids are watching TV that parents need to be aware of — it's what they're hearing, too.
According to a recent study, the background noise and distraction of parents' TV-viewing disrupts play behavior and may negatively affect young kids' early cognitive development and ability to focus their attention.
Researchers put 50 1-, 2-, and 3-year-olds, one at a time, and their parents in a room full of age-appropriate toys for an hour. The children played for 30 minutes with a TV turned off and the other 30 minutes with an adult game show (with commercials) turned on.
Calling "background television" (that children don't understand or really pay attention to) an "environmental risk factor in children's development," the study found that the TV interfered with the kids' playing across all three ages. When the TV was on, children in each age range spent less time playing or being focused on their playing (frequently switching toys), even though they never actually looked at the TV for more than a few seconds.
And the tiny tots weren't just missing out on having fun — play is about so much more than just tinkering with toys. In fact, play (and lots of it) is essential to the development of kids' brains and bodies.
That's just one of the reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends zero "screen time" (TV or videos) for tots under 2 and no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming (TV, computer, or video games) each day for older kids. Yet, this study points to previous research showing that 75% of U.S. households with very young kids keep the tube on at least half the time, whether anyone's watching it or not.
And although this latest study's researchers admit that "even though the effects of background television on play behavior found in this study are small, they may have a cumulative impact through large amounts of exposure at home."
What This Means to You
In addition to following AAP recommendations to limit screen time, make TV viewing in your household as productive as possible:
- Make sure programs are nonviolent, educational, and age-appropriate.
- Turn off the TV during meals and while your child is playing or in the room.
- Set a good example — limit your own screen time.
- Preview programs before your child watches them.
- Watch shows with your kids — at least the first few minutes to assess the tone and appropriateness, then check in throughout the show. Whenever you can, try to sit down with your kids to watch a whole show, using it as an ideal opportunity to bond and educate. Ask and answer questions about what you see (shapes, colors, numbers, letters, emotions, scary or confusing situations, conflicts, etc.).
- Keep TVs out of kids' bedrooms. Having a TV in their rooms can have negative effects on their academic, social, and physical development.
- Offer fun alternatives to TV: hide and seek, playing outside, reading, crafts or hobbies, listening and dancing to music, etc. Have plenty of other entertainment (like books, kids' magazines, toys, dress-up clothes, puzzles, board games, coloring books, and crayons) on hand.
- Try a weekday ban. Record shows or save TV and videos for weekends so you'll have more family time for meals, games, physical activity, reading, and just spending quality time with your kids.
A little screen time is OK, but don't keep it on constantly (even if it's just you who's technically watching). Stick to enriching programs in moderation, and don't use TV as a substitute for activities that are much better suited to helping kids grow and develop as they should (like playing, exercising, reading, or hanging out with you).
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2008
Source: "The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children," Child Development, July/August 2008.