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Background TV May Harm Young Kids' Development

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Updated: 11/30/2012 10:18 pm

April 19, 2012 -- We all do it at least occasionally. We leave the TV on as background noise when no one is really watching. No problem, right? Wrong, according to a new study, if there are young children in the house.

U.S. kids are exposed to close to four hours of background TV each day. This is the main finding from a new study slated to be presented at the upcoming annual meeting of the International Communication Association in Phoenix, Ariz.

Background TV has been linked to problems with learning and reading among young children.

Victor Strasburger, MD, sums it up best when he says, "Babies don't multitask." Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, reviewed the findings for WebMD.

Researchers examined background TV exposure in 1,454 households with children aged 8 months to 8 years. Younger kids and African-American kids were exposed to more background TV than other children, the study shows.

What Is Background TV?

"Background TV is TV that is on in the vicinity of the child that the child is not attending to," says researcher Matthew Lapierre. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia.

Maybe your child is playing in the same room as the TV, or perhaps he or she is eating dinner as the TV drones on in the background, Lapierre says.

Whatever the scenario, it interrupts mental tasks.

According to the study, those children who got the least amount of exposure to background TV were those who did not have a TV in their room. "We think parents leave the TV on while the child is sleeping," he says.

The message is clear: "If no one is watching the TV, turn it off."

TV watching also needs to be monitored. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that older children watch no more than one to two hours of age-appropriate TV per day. It discourages any TV viewing for children ages 2 or younger.

Turn Off TV, and Tune Into Your Kids

"In most households, the TV is on for hours and hours at a time. People use it to keep themselves company, but for children under the age of 2, this may interfere with language development," says Strasburger.

The risks are age-dependent. "Kids older than 2 may see or hear things that a parent doesn't necessarily want them exposed to, but for children under 2, background TV may interfere with language development," he says.

Strasburger says that parents should turn the TV off and tune into their children: "Read to children beginning when they are babies."

These findings will be presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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