Last week I wrote a post about a new trend among child advocates who are embracing screen time and working to reframe parental attitudes toward technology.

Now comes news that the undoubtedly less equal kind of screen time, the droning and distracting background tv noise, is pervasive in homes with children.


Both younger children and African American children were exposed to more, five-and-a-half hours per day. Children from the poorest families heard six hours a day. Children who had televisions in their rooms heard even more.

The study, published online this week in Pediatrics, pointed out that the noise is especially debilitating for younger children as researchers have previously found that it can interfere with cognitive function the developing attention span.

“We were certainly surprised by how much background noise children are exposed to,” said Matthew Lapierre, a lecturer in communication studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and one of the report authors.

“A number of studies on children’s foreground exposure have shown that exposure times for children are in the neighborhood of 90 minutes per day while we found that children were exposed to nearly four hours of background TV on a typical day. These numbers easily dwarf the amount of time children spend interacting with siblings or parents and participating in educational activities.”

Another surprising finding was how the youngest children in the study were exposed to the most background TV. These are the children who are most vulnerable to the distraction, Lapierre said.

“We have hypotheses for why exposure is so high for this age group (parents keep televisions on to feel less isolated, parents don’t consider background exposure as ‘real exposure’), but this study was not designed to provide answers to those specific questions,” he said, adding that this area of research is still developing.

Beyond affecting attention and the ability to absorb information among both children and adults, the researchers also noted that background TV also interferes with parent-child interactions. Parents tend to interrupt play with a child to check up on the TV.

Many people say they tune out such background distractions and might not even notice if a TV is left on. But Lapierre said that’s a learned skill that children do not possess. In fact, it’s a skill that children in homes where the TV is left on are probably less likely to develop, because their attention will b too often interrupted.

Do you tune out background noise? Do you assume your kids do as well?

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