Background TV Distracts Kids From Play

TUESDAY July 15, 2008 -- Even if young children aren't watching the TV, it may be distracting them from their play and depriving them of developing critical attention skills, a new study says.

When children aged 3 and younger played in a room with a television on that was tuned to adult programming, they played for about 5 percent less time than when there was no background TV. More importantly, when there was no background TV, the children's play was more focused with longer play episodes, the study found.

"Background TV is a disruptive and distracting influence. Our evidence is that TV keeps the children from sustaining their attention at a time when developmentally, they're beginning to organize their attention skills and sequencing behaviors," said study senior author Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"Parents think it [background TV] doesn't matter because the programs aren't directed at children, but just because a child isn't paying active attention doesn't mean it doesn't have a disruptive effect," he added.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children 2 years old and younger be exposed to no screen time. For older children, the AAP suggests limiting screen time -- including TV, video games and computer use -- to one to two hours a day of active viewing time. Guidelines haven't specifically addressed background TV.

Because many children are exposed to background TV, and the visual and auditory cues on TV change about every six seconds, Anderson and his colleagues wondered if this exposure affects very young children.

The new study, published in the July/August issue of Child Development, included 50 toddlers who were either 12, 24 or 36 months old. Each child was videotaped during hour-long sessions in a family-room type environment. Their parents were asked to limit their interaction with the children.

The children were randomly assigned to either play with no background TV for the first half hour or to play with an adult game show on TV while they were playing with toys. Then, for the second half hour, the children switched roles.

"Children's play episodes were shorter -- about half as long -- if the TV was on, compared to when it wasn't, [and] children were more likely to move from toy to toy during the time TV was on," Anderson said.

He said these differences weren't obvious if you were in the room with the children, but if you slowly reviewed the videotape, the differences became much more apparent. "The kids look normal. They don't look distressed or distracted," he said.

Dr. Daniel Bronfin, a pediatrician with the Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, called background TV the "equivalent of secondhand smoke."

"All of the concerns we have with children watching programming for children still apply to secondhand viewing. It distracts from the work of childhood, from play," he said.

Bronfin said this type of constant distraction may be a contributing factor to the rise in behavioral disorders, such as attention-deficit disorder.

Both Anderson and Bronfin recommend that parents leave background TV off when a child is in the room. Anderson said that certain children's shows have value and children can learn from them, but that's different from background TV.

More information

For more on kids and TV, visit the Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth.

Posted: July 2008


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