Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.'s  picture
Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.
Developmental Psychologist

Parents’ TV Habits Can Harm Kids

Background TV has harmful affects on children’s play, attention.

What do you think has more of an impact on your child: the TV he or she watches, or the TV that you watch while your child is in the same room?

Research conducted by Daniel Anderson and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst provides insight into this question, and an answer that may surprise you.

In one study, 1- to 3-year-olds came to a laboratory with their parents and played with toys. Parents were watching the adult game show Jeopardy for a half hour, whereas during the other half hour, the TV was turned off. Compared to when the TV was off, both the quantity and quality of children’s toy play was reduced. When Jeopardy was on, children’s toy play episodes were half as long, and the length and quality of focused attention during toy play was reduced. This likely happens because children stop their play to look at the TV, and move on to different activities after the interruption. As Anderson, professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts Amherst, says, “Television is designed to attract attention; it’s not just like street noise outside. So even though Jeopardy is clearly not comprehensible to toddlers, it draws their attention and distracts them during their play.”

Does it matter that background TV disrupts young children’s play? Play is so important to development that it has been recognized as a right of every child. Play is predictive of later cognitive skills, such as attention span, self-regulation, memory, imagination and planning. Play also provides valuable opportunities to interact with others and develop socially. Thus, if television is chronically on in the background, it could have a big impact on children’s development over time.

A second act as they would at home, and most seemed to want to interact with their children even when the TV was on.

Nonetheless, the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions was reduced when the TV was on compared to when it was off. Just as was seen in the first study where children were unable to resist the attractive powers of TV, parents were also distracted by the TV. When the TV was off, parents talked more and were more responsive to their children. They were also less likely to actively engage in, or “scaffold,” children’s play (make suggestions, interact physically). As a result, the quality of children’s toy play while the TV is on goes down.

These findings are important because one-third of babies and toddlers live in homes where the TV is on most or all of the time, according to a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Television that is always on draws away attention, involvement and interaction of parents, and would be likely to have a negative impact on development over time, as children’s toy play and interactions with adults is disrupted.

As Anderson says, “You tend to think that it’s the television your child watches that is having the biggest impact on your child. This work suggests that it is the television parents watch that has the biggest impact.”

So what can parents do? A little background TV won’t be harmful—however, be sure that the TV isn’t on almost all the time, especially adult TV that is left on when there is just a baby or toddler in the room. When you do want your child to watch TV, use it intentionally by choosing programs that are age and content appropriate. (Common Sense Media is one group that reviews and rates media content for children.) And make time every day to interact with your child without any electronic media. Remember: both you and your children will benefit from your focused attention.

Learn More on LearnNow

“Can Kids Really Learn From TV?” by Anna Housley Juster

Related Reading

“Turn Off the TV for Toddlers’ Sakes,” by Lauren Cox, ABC News

“How Can Parents Navigate Children’s TV Shows?” NPR podcast