Behind the Headlines

Tuesday July 15 2008

Children played for an hour, half the time the television was on

A study has found that “having the TV on in the background reduces the quality and quantity of play in young children and may slow their development”, The Guardian reports. Children “were affected by an adult programme to which they appeared to be paying no attention”, the newspaper adds.

This story is based on a study which looked at the effect of background TV on young children’s play behaviours. It is not surprising that having more background distractions may make a child less focused. However, it is not clear from this study whether this has any effect on development. As it becomes increasingly common for young children to spend a large proportion of their time watching television programmes, this is an area of topical interest that will benefit from specific research.

Where did the story come from?

Dr Marie Evans Schmidt and colleagues from the University of Massachusetts carried out this research. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal: Child Development.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This was a randomised controlled crossover trial looking at the effects of background TV on young children’s play behaviours.

The researchers enrolled 50 children (94% white) aged 12, 24 or 36 months old, using state birth records. Children with hearing or visual impairments were not included. Children were randomly assigned to either background TV on or off for the first half of the experiment, after which they would switch to the other scenario. The TV programme “Jeopardy!” was chosen, as it was aimed at adults, and the children were not likely to understand its content or pay attention to it.

The children were placed in a playroom containing the TV, an armchair and various age-appropriate toys. Children were allowed to start playing with the toys while the researcher explained the experiment to their parents. Parents were asked not to play with their child, or direct their attention to any particular toy. They could watch TV or read magazines, and were asked not to interact with their child unless the child became fussy or specifically asked for attention. After this explanation, the researcher left the room and began filming the children’s behaviour through a one-way mirror.

"Background television disrupts very young children’s play behavior even when they pay little overt attention to it."

Marie Evans Schmidt, lead author

The children and parents were left in the room for an hour, and the researcher switched on the TV at the appropriate time (in either the first 30 minutes or second 30 minutes). After the experiment, the specially trained researchers watched the videotapes, and noted how often and for how long the children looked at the TV, and how long they played with the toys. The researchers also measured how long the child spent in focused play, which they were trained to identify by the child’s facial expression, posture and body movements (serious face with furrowed brow, leaning forward towards play object, with little extraneous body movement). A child could look away from the toy for three seconds without it counting as stopping play or focused attention. The researchers also looked at the maturity of the children’s play behaviour.

To check the reliability of measurements, two researchers independently assessed the videos of four children in each age category. Researchers then compared play behaviours for the periods when the TV was on and off. The researchers used complex statistical analyses to take into account children’s age, gender and whether the TV was on in the first half or second half of the experiment in their analyses.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that the children spent only about 5% of their time looking at the TV, with glances lasting about three seconds on average. Looking at the TV was more frequent when the TV was on, but decreased over the period of time that it was on. Younger children looked at the TV more than older children. Children played for about 18 seconds less in each six-minute interval when the TV was on, which represented a reduction of about 5% in play time. Individual play episodes were, on average, 30 seconds shorter when the TV was on.

Whether the TV was on or off did not significantly affect the percentage of the time that the child spent in focused play. However, when the TV was on during the first 30 minutes, it reduced the length of individual focused episodes by about five seconds – almost a 25% reduction. Whether the TV was on or off did not affect the maturity of children’s play.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers concluded that “very young children’s toy play was disrupted by background television”. They say that although the effects were small, they may have a cumulative effect if the child has long periods of TV exposure at home.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

Although this study provides evidence that very young children may be distracted from play by background TV, it is not clear whether this would have any impact on the child’s development. The authors point out that the change in attention style may not necessarily be negative. Parents should not worry unduly that watching TV with their young child in the room will stunt their child’s development. Parents should use their common sense to regulate how much TV they and their children watch, and ensure that they set aside time to engage in play with their young children, with a minimum of distractions. This study offers no conclusions about how children’s play could be affected by children’s TV programmes broadcasting in the background. As it becomes increasingly common for young children to spend a large proportion of their time watching television programmes, this is an area of topical interest that will benefit from specific research.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Background TV is bad for young children's development, says study. The Guardian, July 15 2008

Links to the science

Schmidt ME, Pempek TA, Kirkorian HL, et al. The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Dev 2008; 79:1137–1151

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