Turn Off That TV

Children and the mass media

How Background TV Affects Children

Kids are affected by TV they aren't even watching

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.

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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. 

This may not seem especially concerning. However, play is very important to children's development. During play, children manipulate and experiment with objects, they learn about cause and effect, and they exercise their creativity and imagination. Play also helps children's social development, as it requires children to consider other people's viewpoints and to practice negotiation and conflict-resolution strategies. When play sessions are very short or repeatedly interrupted, children are not able to experience the cognitive and social benefits of play as much.

Background TV is also detrimental to parent-child interaction. Not surprisingly, adults talk less to their children when the TV is on. It is difficult for adults to tune out TV and focus on their children, especially when TV content is interesting to them. In another study, researchers found that when background TV was on, parents were less likely to interact with their infants and toddlers compared to when it was off. This is an important effect since healthy parent-child communication is critical to children's development.

It is understandable why researchers have become increasingly interested in the effects of background TV on children. One report revealed that about one third of families with young children leave the TV set on all or most of the time. We've allowed TV to occupy a significant position in family life. TV, even when simply on in the background, still has a commanding voice. Maybe it's time that we give this family member a lengthy time-out.

Amy Nathanson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Ohio State University School of Communication.

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