Kids Exposed to a Whopping Four Hours of Background TV a Day

Takepart.comOctober 2, 2012

Children and television watching aren’t always a great mix, especially when talking about health consequences. But parents have to worry about more than kids plopped down in front of the TV—now they have to think about how much background TV they’re exposed to.

On average, kids from about age 1 to 8 are exposed to about four hours of background television a day, a recent study in the journal Pediatrics finds. While too much direct television has been linked to obesity and poor cognitive development, less is known about the effects of background TV.

Two studies in 2008 and 2009 in the journal Child Development looked at the fallout of background TV watching. One found an association between background TV exposure and worse quality and quantity of parent-child interactions, and that could influence development. The other found that having TV on in the background disturbed play among young children, which may have an impact on cognitive development.

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Although the effects may be like those of second-hand smoke, no one really knew just how much background TV kids were privy to.

Researchers in this study discovered that certain demographic groups had more background TV contact than others. Younger children between 8 and 24 months were subject to more than 5.5 hours of background TV a day.

The authors speculated that being the stay-at-home parents of an infant or toddler can be isolating, and television is an entertaining instant companion, so they watch more of it. Some parents may not even think that having the TV on in the background counts as being exposed to it.

Also on the higher end of background TV exposure were African-American kids, kids from lower income families, children of single parents and kids whose parents were less educated. Those groups are already at risk for other health concerns, such as higher obesity rates and cognitive problems.

Children who had a TV in their bedroom were also more likely to have more background TV exposure.

“A number of studies have linked bedroom television ownership with negative outcomes and our study just adds to this,” lead author Matthew LaPierre of the University of North Carolina Wilmington told TakePart.

The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a hard line on television viewing for young children, recommending no TV at all for children under the age of 2.

So what’s a parent to do—simply switch the thing off? “It's unlikely that making parents aware of exposure times for background TV will significantly decrease exposure time absent any specific recommendations,” LaPierre said. “The recommendations I would make to families is to view with a purpose (turn the TV on when you are going to watch a specific program) and to remove televisions from children's bedrooms.”

How much many hours is the TV on as background in your home? Let us know in the comments.

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Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine |