TV remote

In many homes, a television playing in the background is the soundtrack for everyday life. Some people habitually leave the TV on, even when no one is watching it. This habit could have unintended consequences for cognitive and social well-being.

It’s Harder to Concentrate

For one thing, background TV can interfere with concentration. Most studies to date have looked at the impact on children, but grown-ups are likely affected as well.

It’s a particularly pressing issue for parents. Most experts agree that kids tend to watch far too much television. But many spend even more time within earshot of a TV that’s turned on while they’re engaged in other activities. A study published in Pediatrics last year showed that U.S. children ages eight months to eight years are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV per day, on average.

There seem to be negative consequences at every age. In preschoolers, background TV has been linked to less focused attention during playtime and lower quality interactions with parents. In eighth-graders, it has been associated with poorer performance on homework and memorization.

Less is known about the effects on adults. However, in one study of college students, 90 participants read newspaper science articles either with TV on in the background or in silence. After a break, both groups were tested to see how well they remembered what they had just read. Those in the background TV group recalled less.

It’s Tougher to Communicate

Background TV may also impair hearing and communication. Among those who may be affected are the one-third of Americans ages 60 and up who have some hearing loss. Two common symptoms of hearing loss are difficulty hearing when there is noise in the background and trouble following a conversation when others are talking at the same time.

A recent study in Nature Neuroscience suggested that background chatter may affect the ears of those with such hearing problems differently than healthy ears. Researchers at Purdue University studied chinchillas, which have a hearing range similar to humans. Some of the animals had normal hearing, and others had cochlear hearing loss. The study showed no difference between the two groups of animals in how their cochlear nerve cells processed sounds in a quiet environment. But when background noise was added, the nerve cells of the hearing-impaired group had more trouble with the temporal coding of sounds.

In addition, the distraction of background TV may magnify the challenges of a language or communication disorder. The competing sounds from a television can make it harder to focus on and process what someone in the same room is saying. As a result, health care providers routinely advise individuals with certain conditions—for example, stroke survivors with aphasia and people with Alzheimer's disease—to turn off the TV when having a conversation.

Fortunately, the problem of background TV has a simple solution: Switch off the television when you aren’t actively watching it. And especially when there are children around, consider watching less, because even secondhand TV may be harmful to their psychological health.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook.

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