Turn off the TV in the Background and Talk to Your Children

What parents can learn from the early science of brain development.

We’ve been closely following Hillary Clinton’s new Too Small to Fail campaign. We were happy to see this helpful post from research associate Rey Fuentes, posted at Next Generation (one of the campaign’s partners) on, among other things, the importance of turning off the TV in the background. He emphasizes the importance of early intervention and discusses what the latest science tells us about early learning and brain development. As a parent, I’m personally grateful for the campaign’s effort to turn that science into concrete suggestions.iStock_000001577492XSmall-283x424

“The budding literature on the brain development of young children indicates that the brain’s architecture— the neural connections that make the brain function—is most sensitive in the early years,” Fuentes writes. “And not only that, much of the development that defines what our brains will look like as adults is formed within the first five years of life. As any architect or engineer would warn, when you build a structure on an unsteady foundation there is a high risk that it will fall down. Likewise, children without solid foundations of emotional, physical, and mental development suffer the consequences years down the road.”

To wit, Fuentes points to a study in Pediatrics last year that found that young children (under age 8) are exposed to an average of 232 minutes of background television per day— time when the television is on, but no one is watching. This he says “stunts their cognitive abilities and ability to engage in social play.”

That’s a stunning amount of time, but not out of line with what others have found. Writing about the same study on this blog, media scholar Daniel Anderson said the researchers found young kids were exposed to more hours of background TV than the older kids in the study. Kids under 24 months were exposed to about 5 ½ hours a day in the presence of a TV set playing in the background.

Anderson has spent 30 years studying children and television, and he says we’ve only recently begun to look at this phenomenon. He says no studies to date have included all background media (including laptops or gaming consoles, for examples, in addition to television). “But,” he writes, “we can guess that the exposure is large.”

Here’s more:

Older family members usually choose background media, and they are in use while the young child is present.  The medium might be a dynamic screen saver on a computer screen, a TV playing a football game, a radio talk show, or hip-hop played on the stereo.  It might be a parent updating a Facebook page on her iPad, or a teenage sibling playing a game on his cell phone or game console.  In none of these examples is a young child likely to pay sustained attention to the media content, but in all of them the child could be influenced.  The TV sports program may distract the child from constructive toy play, the parent updating Facebook may be unresponsive to the child’s social bids, and the teen game player is unavailable to read to his younger sibling.

Anderson underscores this relationship, pointing to this study that found background television does appear to have negative impact on parent-child interactions. Fuentes also calls attention to research on the importance of talking with young children, and on creative play, both which we’ve written about.

This is the kind of research parents and caregivers too often miss or lack guidance about how to interpret.

At the Fred Rogers Center we believe children should be using media only in developmentally appropriate ways, which for young children often means with an adult by their side, talking with them about what they are seeing. Experts are also concerned that the content of shows playing in the background is often not developmentally appropriate. It’s often adult-oriented content that contains violence, sexually inappropriate material, or other content not appropriate for young children.

“Early experiences have a huge impact on the development of the brain,” Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff says in a video on the Too Small To Fail campaign’s site.  “This is a time when the foundations of all the health and learning and behavior that you’re going to follow for a lifetime are being built. “

The message of the Too Small to Fail campaign— that what we do as parents and caregivers in these early years has a lasting impact— is crucial. Let’s listen—and turn off the TV in the background.

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