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Why Background TV Isn’t Healthy For Little Ones

Leaving the TV switched on throughout the day is commonplace in many homes. It’s often just the “done” thing.  

So parents are often quite shocked to learn that there are unintended consequences of “background TV” on their child’s development.

I live by the mantra by Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” I start this blog post with this mantra, because I’m going to share some information that most parents are completely unaware of. I’m 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.


Background TV is harmful for little ones

Also referred to as “second-hand TV”, background TV is often considered to be a benign part of everyday life.  But it’s not! Second-hand TV can have an adverse effect on how children develop, particularly their language skills.


It’s not obvious to think that background TV could adversely impact on young children’s development. This is one of the reasons I started my business. I feel passionate about bridging the gap between what research tells us about how children learn and develop in the digital age and what parents (and teachers) need to know. And it’s not always obvious or intuitive to know (remember we’re the first generation of parents who are navigating this digital terrain with our little ones).


And understanding the adverse impact of background TV is really important for today’s parents (especially considering there are more and more digital devices entering family homes).


How much background TV are children exposed to each day?


A US study reported in the Pediatrics journal has shown that today’s American children are exposed to 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, doesn’t mean they’re 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 young children’s development. We must therefore protect the conditions which optimise play and language. And this means, switching off TV (and other digital devices) that can potentially interrupt their play experiences. (Background music is not as distracting as TV and other screen-based digital devices as explained in this post).


  • Parents tend to engage less with children when the TV is on. Children lose their conversational partner when the TV is switched on. When we’re watching TV (particularly if it’s something we’re engrossed in) then we’re not able to respond to our children in the same way that we would, if the TV had not been switched on.

I’m not proposing that we should never watch TV in the presence of our children. This is not sensible (or practical) advice. [Total disclosure- I watch the morning news most days while the little ones are playing and I don’t feel guilty about that.) However, we need to be mindful of how our children might be distracted when a TV is constantly turned on throughout the day, or during play times.

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 when we’re exhausted, or when you simply need to ‘escape’ or have some down-time. However, it’s 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). This is where they engage in facial mapping and other critical interactions that build their brains. Click here to read more.


  • Background TV has been shown to impair academic performance. 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. Excessive amounts of background TV has been shown to be correlated to poorer attention spans. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that background TV causes attentional issues. There’s simply a connection- perhaps children with attention issues gravitate more towards TV.


Important To Know


I’m 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’s imperative that parents are at least aware of what the research actually tells us about background TV. Ultimately, it’s 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.

When no one is watching the TV, switch it off.

TV is one of the topics I talk about in my Parenting in the Digital Age Parent Seminar.  I translate the research into essential and digestible information for today’s modern parents. Find out more here.


Were you aware that background TV was potentially harmful for young children? How do you manage background TV with your kids?


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I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.

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