A: Most people already know about the dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke to kids, but new research by a UI professor suggests that “secondhand television”—background TV noise—may also have a negative impact on a child’s development.
In a nationwide study of children eight months to eight years old, associate education professor Deborah Linebarger and her team found that the average child is exposed to four hours of background television a day. That’s on top of the 80 minutes or more of TV each day that children under six years old watch.
The daily amounts of “secondhand television” were even higher for children under two years old, African-American children, and kids in single-parent households. In fact, Linebarger was shocked to find kids under two were exposed to 5.5 hours of background TV per day—which is more time than they spend on any other activity besides sleep.
Linebarger emphasizes that the problem doesn’t lie with the TV itself, but with the distraction it presents when children are engaged in another activity. Music, dialogue, and sound effects disrupt kids’ attention and reduce the quality of their play time. “It’s like when you’re working and a barrage of people comes knocking on your door,” says Linebarger. “It takes a bit to get back to what you were doing.”
Such distractions interfere with the development of children’s executive functioning—the cognitive skills such as planning, memory, attention, reasoning, problem-solving, multitasking, and good behavior that help them succeed in school. As a former media researcher who tested the educational content of PBS kids’ programs, as well as the mother of four children ranging in age from four to 19, Linebarger offers the following advice on managing a child’s TV time: