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Health blog

Children and Television

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children younger than two years old.

There’s no doubt that watching age-appropriate television in moderation can help educate children. Preschoolers learn their alphabet and numbers from television, while older children learn about nature and life in other countries. But watching too much television is not good for children. That’s old news. For years parents have been warned that watching too much television can lead to obesity. It may lead to aggressive or fearful behavior if children watch violent or scary shows. Television characters depict risky behavior, such as drinking and smoking that children may later decide to emulate. Television can reinforce gender and ethnic stereotypes. And how about the 40,000 commercials the average child sees each year pushing junk food and cheap toys?

But what about background television – leaving television on when children aren’t watching it? If television serves as the unnoticed background noise of your everyday home life, you’re not alone. A study published in November 2012 by the American Academy of Pediatrics found the average child eight months to eight years old is exposed to nearly four hours of background television noise over a twenty-four hour period. Study authors called the results startling.

Some children are exposed to even more background television noise. Younger children and children from poorer families are exposed to nearly six hours of background television per day. Other factors were also found to increase the hours of daily background television. Children living with one parent have much more background television time than those living with two parents. Parents with higher educational levels are less likely to keep the TV on than are those with lower educational levels. And children who have televisions in their bedrooms had higher exposure to background television than those without a bedroom TV.

Previous studies suggested that too much background television exposure could result in children being less focused during playtime. The possibility of reduced cognitive abilities and lower-quality interactions between parents and children has also been suggested. However, researchers were not sure how much background television was actually going on in homes.

The study of 1,450 families found that background television is a prevalent problem in American homes. Matthew Lapierre, one of the study researchers, said, “Our results indicate that children are exposed to a tremendous amount of background television.” In fact, the study found three hours of background television for every hour of active television watching.

Parents may leave the television on because they themselves are too busy to actively engage with the child. Other parents may leave television on around preverbal children to help fill the silence or because they believe it provides stimulation to the child. Parents may watch TV while their children play in the same room. That’s also background television noise. Study authors say that noise from background television can disrupt a child’s development of important skills such as problem solving and communication gained through focused play.

There are ways to minimize the effects of background television. Study authors suggest reduction of background television can start with simple steps, such as turning off the television when no one is watching, or turning it off at key points during the child’s day, such as during mealtimes, at bedtime and while completing homework. Parents can remove televisions from children’s bedrooms.

Turn watching television into a family event instead of annoying background noise. Parents and children can plan on watching certain programs together rather than having the TV on constantly. Afterwards, parents can talk about the show and help guide children’s understanding of what they just watched. Better still, play a board game, read a book together, play outdoors, work on crafts, or dance to music. The possibilities for family fun without television are endless. Turn off the television and enjoy quality family time together.

Sources: Lapierre MA, Piotrowski JT, Linebarger DL. Background Television in the Homes of US Children. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):839-846; and
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