TV is a common fixture in our everyday lives. It's almost as if the TV is a part of the family. We turn it on in the morning so that we can catch the latest headlines. We leave it on all day so we can have some background noise or comfort. We reach for the remote control, unthinkingly and habitually, whenever we walk in the door. Most households have a TV set on for many hours of the day, regardless of whether anyone is watching it or not.
So what happens when we become parents and continue to leave the TV on all day while our young children are present? Because we turn the set on and choose programs designed for us, does it even matter? It certainly seems logical that if children aren't watching the programs, then they would not be harmed by it.
However, "background TV" does affect children, but not in the ways we might fear. Preschoolers who play while CSI is on in the background are not going to imitate the content. Infants who are fed by a parent who is tuned into the evening news are not going to become frightened by an upsetting news story.
The effects of background TV on young children are more subtle, but profoundly important. Background TV disrupts children's play. In one study, 12- to 36-month-old kids who played with toys, while their parents were in the same room and watching adult-directed programs, played for a shorter period of time than when the TV was off. In addition, children used a less sophisticated form of play when background TV was present compared to when it was not. It seems that the TV program, even though it was mostly incomprehensible and probably boring to the children, was captivating enough to repeatedly attract the children's attention.