More than white noise

Dec 13, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

In many households, the TV is left on all day long. On average, children are exposed to almost four hours of background television a day on top of their active viewing time.

Surprisingly even passive TV viewing is linked with attentional problems and poor information retention. Keep your family’s screen time at a minimum with these simple tips easily adaptable to any home.

Contributed by Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D.

We have all heard the drawbacks of putting our children in front of the television. Excessive screen time has been linked with higher rates of obesity, lower reading and cognitive scores, sleep disturbances, aggression, desensitization to violence, and even vascular changes in the eyes which is associated with heart risk. But what about when the television is simply on in the background and no one seems to be watching it?

Background noise

Approximately 30 percent of American families report that their television stays on the entire day which accumulates to an enormous amount of “passive” TV watching. A 2012 study by Lapeirre and Piotrowski published in Pediatrics indicates that children are exposed to almost four hours of “inactive” or background television a day on top of their average 80 minutes of active TV viewing in a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more than two hours of educational, non-violent programming a day and absolutely no screen time for children under age 2.

Does passive TV viewing really count?

The problem with background TV is that even if a child is seemingly not paying attention, their brain is still being bombarded with sounds and distracted by images. Children exposed to background TV were found to have more difficulty sustaining attention during playtime, discriminating and attending to voices, performed poorly on cognitive tests and displayed diminished quality parent-child interactions compared to children who were not exposed. When the TV is on during homework, kids were found to retain less information which impacts learning and school performance. When TV is on during dinner, quality of conversation with the family suffers.

Though research is preliminary, the emerging data cannot be ignored. Chronic background TV may impact a child’s development and hinder achievement of their full potential.

Decreasing screen time

You can reduce your family's screen time in a number of ways:

Make one day a TV-less day

Some families adopt “TV-less Tuesday” where the television stays off all day and the family plays board games in the evening. If you can survive one day a week without TV, you may find that your dependence on it reduces.

Turn it off when not being watched

If the TV is used as background noise or mindless entertainment, try playing music instead. Unlike TV, music stimulates different areas of the brain and is well-documented as a positive influence on brain development and relaxation. There should be absolutely no TV during homework, family time or meals.

Limit all TV to certain times of day

Some families have a “No TV before school” rule or “No TV until after dinner and homework” rule. Remember all screen time counts, including movies and videos watched on the computer.

Practice what you preach

Setting an example will not only benefit your children but you will find yourself being more productive and more engaged.

Create a schedule

Have your kids select the one or two programs they want to watch daily and only turn on the TV for those shows.

Alicia DiFabioAbout the Author:

Alicia DiFabio, Psy.D. has her doctorate in psychology and is a published essayist working on her first book. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and four children and can be contacted through her blog where she writes about family and special needs parenting at Welcome To My Planet.

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