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'Background TV' A Pervasive Concern

Travis Huggett

Developmental experts have long cautioned against the hazards of television. The American Academy of Pediatrics has one of the stricter stances: that video screen time provides no educational benefits for children under age 2 – and even leaves less time for activities that do, like interacting with other people and playing, the group said.

Now the Academy is warning about the ill effects of so-called "background" television – TV that's been left on as background noise even though nobody is watching it. Parents are cautioned that this second-hand television can actually be harmful to children's cognitive functioning and social play, especially for toddlers 2 and younger. 

The Academy conducted a study in which researchers found found the average child under 8 is exposed to nearly 4 hours of background television over a 24-hour period.

"Background television exposure has been linked to lower sustained attention during playtime, lower quality parent-child interactions, and reduced performance on cognitive tasks," reported Matthew Lapierre, of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and colleagues.

 The study, “Background Television in the Homes of U.S. Children,” will be published in the November 2012 issue of Pediatrics and is the first to establish the pervasiveness of video wallpaper in U.S. homes with children. Children in families who left the television on when no one was watching, and children who had TV sets in their bedrooms, were exposed to more background TV.

Plus: Kids and TV – A Get-Real Guide 

Both younger children and African American children are exposed to more background television, at an average of 5.5 hours per day, and children from the poorest families were exposed to nearly 6 hours per day. 

"This is concerning because past research has shown that children from these demographic groups are typically at risk for other social and cognitive problems," Lapierre's group pointed out.

 The study's authors suggest attempts to reduce background TV can start with simple steps like advice to turn off the TV when no one is watching, or to turn off the TV at key points during the child’s day, like bedtime and mealtime. Parents should also be mindful of their own television viewing habits when their littlest ones are home, even if they aren't plonked in front of the tube.

"This may be particularly effective for parents of the youngest children who may not see their own direct exposure as having an impact on young children or may be using the television for companionship," researchers wrote.

Do you leave the TV on for background noise in your home? Let us know what you think about the second-hand television and the Academy's study.