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Is YOUR Television Viewing Harming Your Child?

 WARNING: this blog post addresses a controversial topic and one that polarises parents. I am going to address the unintended consequences of parents’ own TV viewing. Many parents are oblivious to the potentially harmful effects of background TV on their child’s development.


I live by Maya Angelou’s mantra, “When you know better, you do better.” I start this blog post with this mantra, because I am going to share some information that most parents are completely unaware of. I am not trying to make parents feel guilty because I understand, as a parent myself, that we already have enough to fret and worry about, without feeling unnecessarily ‘guilty’ about TV.

After I share this information about ‘second-hand TV’ in the Parent Seminars I deliver, parents convey their utter surprise. It is a common misnomer that background TV is ‘safe’ or ‘okay’.  Background TV is a common occurrence in Australian households. It has often assumed that it is just a benign addition. However, second-hand TV can have an adverse effect on how children develop.

It is not obvious to think that background TV could adversely impact on young children’s development. This is one of the reasons I started Every Chance to Learn. I feel passionate about bridging the gap between what research tells us about how children learn in the digital age and what parents (and teachers) need to know.

How much background TV are children exposed to each day?

A 2013 study reported in the Pediatrics journal has shown that today’s American children are exposed to nearly 232.4 minutes of background TV each day. That is nearly 4 hours a day! As an average, there are some children who are being exposed to even more than 4 hours of TV each day. This is a huge concern.


So what impact does background TV have on young children?

*Background TV interferes with how children play. Just because children aren’t staring at the TV with their mouth ajar or gesturing at the screen, does not mean they are not watching it. Children may not appear to be ‘watching’ but their attention is often drawn to the sound effects or bright lights of the TV. Research has shown that children’s sustained attention is lower when there is background TV. As a result, their play is interrupted as they drift in and out of TV viewing. Children’s self-talk is also significantly less when there is background TV. Play and language are absolutely vital for brain development. We must therefore protect the conditions which optimise play and language.

*Parents tend to engage less with children when there is background TV. Children lose their conversational partner. It appears that when parents are watching TV they are unable to respond to their children in the same way that they would, if the TV had not been switched on. This is not to suggest that parents should never watch TV in the presence of their children. This is not sensible (or practical) advice. However, parents need to be mindful of how they might be distracted when a TV is present.

*This is especially the case for very young babies who are often fed by parents who are consumed with screens (smartphones, tablets or TV). As a Mum, I understand first-hand how many hours are dedicated to feeding a baby and how TV viewing helps, especially in the wee hours of the morning, or when you simply need to ‘escape’ or have some down-time. However, it is essential that TV is not the norm at every feed, as babies, in particular, need face-time (real face-to-face interactions with lots of eye contact).

*Research has also shown that children who are exposed to excessive amounts of background TV have reduced performance on cognitive tasks. Long-term and excessive background TV can impact later on, in terms of how a child learns.


Important To Know

I am not suggesting that TV, per se, is ‘bad’ for children. That is not true. In fact, we have ample evidence to suggest that appropriate TV content actually helps children to learn. There are numerous studies that have shown that appropriate content can help children develop basic learning skills, social competence and even emotional control.

As parents, we just need to be mindful how much we are exposing children to TV. As a children’s media researcher I feel it is imperative that parents are at least aware of what the research actually tells us about background TV. Ultimately, it is up to individual families to make choices about how they will use TV in their household. I hope this post has provided some evidence so parents can make informed decisions.

As a general rule of thumb, when not using it, switch it off.

Tell me in the comments below, were you aware that background TV had potentially harmful consequences?


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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