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Q: Does background television harm children?

 

A: Most people already know about the dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke to kids, but new research by a UI professor suggests that “secondhand television”—background TV noise—may also have a negative impact on a child’s development.

In a nationwide study of children eight months to eight years old, associate education professor Deborah Linebarger and her team found that the average child is exposed to four hours of background television a day. That’s on top of the 80 minutes or more of TV each day that children under six years old watch.

The daily amounts of “secondhand television” were even higher for children under two years old, African-American children, and kids in single-parent households. In fact, Linebarger was shocked to find kids under two were exposed to 5.5 hours of background TV per day—which is more time than they spend on any other activity besides sleep.

Linebarger emphasizes that the problem doesn’t lie with the TV itself, but with the distraction it presents when children are engaged in another activity. Music, dialogue, and sound effects disrupt kids’ attention and reduce the quality of their play time. “It’s like when you’re working and a barrage of people comes knocking on your door,” says Linebarger. “It takes a bit to get back to what you were doing.”

Such distractions interfere with the development of children’s executive functioning—the cognitive skills such as planning, memory, attention, reasoning, problem-solving, multitasking, and good behavior that help them succeed in school. As a former media researcher who tested the educational content of PBS kids’ programs, as well as the mother of four children ranging in age from four to 19, Linebarger offers the following advice on managing a child’s TV time:

  • Keep the TV out of a child’s bedroom. Children with TVs in their room are more likely to be obese, have sleep disturbances, experience academic problems, and to watch more television—including more inappropriate content.
  • Turn it off during meals. This promotes better interaction between children and parents.
  • Don’t leave the TV on all day. Instead, turn off the television at the end of the program you intended to watch. Most parents involved in Linebarger’s study didn’t realize the TV stayed on long after they were done watching it.
  • Think about what you watch. “Kids will learn from whatever you put in front of them,” says Linebarger. Watching violence on television can negatively affect a child’s behavior in the same way that smoking can lead to lung cancer. Tune in to children’s educational programs, which work from a specific curriculum to enhance learning.
  • In all things, moderation. “Use TV as you would any other tool. There’s nothing inherently problematic or bad about it—it’s what you’re watching and how you’re exposed to it that matter,” says Linebarger. “TV isn’t the enemy.”