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Background TV and Children don’t Mix


Coming from a, to put it gently, very broken home, my babysitter was the television. Yep, so now that you are feeling nice and awkward let’s talk television. New research, which was expanded from previous research by the same team shows that, if you are a parent, you should limit not just the television watching habits of your children but also the background television exposure.

The researchers found that background television– which was defined as when the TV is on in a room where a child is doing something other than watching– can divert a child’s attention from play and learning, big shock I know. They also found that “non-educational” programs can negatively affect children’s cognitive development.

“Kids are going to learn from whatever you put in front of them,” says Deborah Linebarger, associate professor in education at the UI and the lead author on the study, published online in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. “So what kinds of messages, what kinds of things do you want them to learn? That would be the kinds of media you’d purposefully expose them to.”

The findings come from a national survey of more than 1,150 families with children between 2 and 8 years old. The team looked at family demographics, parenting styles, media use, and more importantly [in my opinion] how those factors could impact kids’ future success.

The group found a relationship between the content children are exposed to and their executive function — if you didn’t click the link, executive function is an important facet in learning and development, which works sort of like recalling a past event, such as something learned.

This was especially true among children in families she identified as “high risk”– which the team defined as families living in poverty or families whose parents have little education, as an example. Yet even kids in high-risk families who watched educational television saw increases in executive function [when compared to children who watched non-educational television], the researchers found.

Regardless of family demographics, parenting can act as a buffer against the impacts of background TV, the team found.

“Children whose parents create a home environment that is loving and nurturing and where rules and expectations are the same from one time to another are better able to control their behavior, display more empathy, and do better academically,” she says.

In particular, researchers suggest that parents be mindful what their children view on the tube, especially the content of a show. Linebarger had these wise words to go by:

“Sit down to watch a particular show and when it’s done, turn it off,” she says.

In an earlier study that I mentioned at the beginning, Linbarger and other researchers found that children, on average, are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV per day. Among the impacts of background TV, researchers say, is it recruits kids’ attention away from other activities, such as play and learning, which could potentially lead to shorter attention spans in children who’s brains are craving more and more stimulus.

Sure, it might not be a new message, it might not even be finding that are that hard to figure out. But the study at least quantifies the problem and helps show that children from any background can have a good television experience.

Now if only I could get my wife to lay off the background television…

Want the full study? You can find that —here!

Linebarger DL, Barr R, Lapierre MA, & Piotrowski JT (2014). Associations Between Parenting, Media Use, Cumulative Risk, and Children’s Executive Functioning. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP, 35 (6), 367-77 PMID: 25007059

Lapierre, M., Piotrowski, J., & Linebarger, D. (2012). Background Television in the Homes of US Children PEDIATRICS, 130 (5), 839-846 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2581

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