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Kids and the secondhand (background) television problem

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 1, 2012 07:48 AM

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On an average day at your house, how many hours a day is the TV on? Not necessarily being watched--just on?

According to a study just released in the journal Pediatrics, the average US kid is exposed to four hours of background TV a day. This is on top of anything they might actually sit and watch. For kids eight months to two years, that number is five and a half hours a day.

This is really worrisome, because contrary to what many parents think, background TV affects kids. Research shows that background TV:
  • Distracts kids from their play, which means that they don't learn to pay steady attention to what they are doing, a skill that is reasonably crucial in life.
  • Distracts them from tasks that help them learn--like homework!
  • Gets in the way of the parent-child relationship--nothing messes up interactions like one or the other of you turning away to watch TV
In the study, the kids who were most likely to have lots of background TV in their lives were African-American, living in homes that were low-income, with parents who had less formal education or with one parent. This is unfortunate, because these kids are already at high risk of problems with "self-regulation" (attention and social skills) and obesity. Background TV makes this worse.

But even for rich kids with highly educated parents, the TV was on in the background for two or three hours a day, more than is good.

So...a few suggestions:
  • Please, don't leave the TV on. So many families do this out of habit; it's like white noise to them. If nobody is actually sitting there watching something, shut it off (watching it less is a good idea too...)
  • Get TV's out of kids' bedrooms. Having a TV in the bedroom isn't just associated with more background TV exposure, but with more TV viewing in general (with all those downsides) and sleep problems.
  • Being home with a small child can be boring and lonely sometimes if you are alone with them day after day--but turning on the TV isn't the best solution. Play with your child instead--it may end up being more fun than you think. And if you are craving some adult interaction (or just more to your day than Peek-a-boo and Dora The Explorer), there are other options besides TV. Invite friends over. Look into parent-child classes, or community parent groups, or babysitting collaboratives. Many gyms have childcare--lets you be around grownups and get some exercise too! 
TV is not necessarily evil. There are some good shows, and it can be a nice way to spend time together. As long as your kids are getting some active and imaginative play and don't spend more than a couple of hours a day in front of the TV, I think it's fine. But we do need to rethink our TV habits.

If there isn't  a really good reason for it to be on, turn it off.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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