I hear it all the time from parents when I ask how much time their kids spend watching TV. “They don’t really watch it,” they’ll say. “It’s on, but they are doing other things.” They say it as if it doesn’t count if the TV is on in the background.
And according to a study just released in the journal Pediatrics, the TV is on in the background an awful lot. The average US kid is exposed to four hours of background TV a day—and for kids 8 months to two years, that number jumps to a startling five and a half hours.
Why does this matter? Because as all of us know, TV is distracting. It keeps us from paying full attention to what we are doing. For little kids who are still learning how to pay steady attention in the first place, having the TV on for so many hours could keep them from mastering this really important life task. For older kids, it can distract them from homework—or even just from finishing that Lego house or painting the family portrait. This may not seem like a big deal, but the ability to conceive of ideas and projects and see them to completion has everything to do with future success—TV in the background all the time could seriously mess that up.
TV also distracts us from each other. As Dr. Michael Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health here at Boston Children’s Hospital said about this study, “We know that when parents have a TV on, the level of communication drops dramatically,” Rich says. “Both the parent and child are distracted.”
This could have an impact not only on the relationships between parents and their children, but on language development—because conversations have everything to do with how a child learns new words and practices them. What is this going to mean for this generation of babies and toddlers?
The numbers are highest in low-income, African-American and single-parent households, and in families where the parents have lower levels of education (which is worrisome, because these kids are already at risk of behavioral and learning problems), but this is a remarkably widespread issue. All kids, including rich kids and white kids and kids whose parents have lots of education are being exposed to at least a couple of hours of background TV a day. And remember, this is on top of the TV they are actually watching (or the video games they are playing or the time they are spending surfing the web).
Dr. Rich also reiterates the importance of the new research stating, “This study brings to light just how much screens have become integrated into our public and home environments, and how easily we (and our children) may direct our attention to them automatically rather than consciously,” he says. “We need to be aware that our attention has value, to us and to our children who live, learn and bond with us. We need to be directing our attention purposefully to what we value most and understand that there are costs when we choose to have our attention diverted or distracted by screens.”
The scariest thing for me is that the effects are so insidious. Having the TV on in the background seems so harmless…and it could be years before the learning and language and behavior problems become clear. At that point, it’s really hard to do anything about it.
So, please, turn off the television. Play music instead. Even better, play with your kid instead. Build that Lego house with them (I’d love tips on how to get those roof pieces to work)—or paint that family portrait together (maybe you can talk your child into making you look less goofy).
Think of it as an investment in your relationship with your child—and in your child’s future.