June 16, 2014
News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Parents Talk to Kids Less with Background TV
Having TV on in the background while you play with your toddler may hinder the child's language development, a new study suggests. That's because parents talked to their children less when the TV was on. Talking to young children is considered important for helping them learn to speak. The study included 49 parents and their children, who were 12, 24 or 36 months old. Parents were asked to play with their children for an hour in a study laboratory. Age-appropriate toys were provided. Half of the time, the TV was on. The programs were appropriate to adults or older children. For the other half hour, the TV was off. Researchers observed and kept track of parents' interactions with their children. Parents spoke about 9 times per minute and said about 36 words per minute with the TV off. Each minute that the TV was on, parents spoke about 6 times and said about 24 words. The Journal of Children and Media published the study online. HealthDay News wrote about it June 13.
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
If you want your toddler to talk more, shut off the TV.
We aren't talking about Dora the Explorer here, although shutting that off is a good idea as well. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 not watch any TV at all.) We are talking about shows parents want to watch.
It's understandable that parents might want to turn on the TV. Toddlers aren't exactly amazing conversationalists. So, unless you are really a big fan of blocks or banging on pans, time with them isn't always scintillating. Having Oprah, or the History Channel, or the news on in the background might help entertain parents while they entertain toddlers.
The problem is that the TV distracts the parents. And when they are distracted, they interact less with their children. That's what researchers found when they observed 49 parents and toddlers for an hour. For half of the hour, the TV was on in the background with shows for adults or older children. When the TV was on, parents said fewer words to their children.
This is important, because we know that verbal interactions with caregivers are crucial for children's language development.
It's also important, say the researchers, because American children under the age of 2 are exposed to an average of 5.5 hours of background television each day. This could have serious implications for language development.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
The best thing to do is to turn off the television, plain and simple. Play with your child. Read stories -- pick ones you like. Maybe they won't understand all the words. That's OK. Hearing you read them, and being close to you as you do, will encourage their development.
If being alone with your toddler makes you so stir-crazy that you want to reach for the TV remote, get out. Go to a museum, or to the park. You could even just go for a walk around the block with your child in a stroller or carrier (the exercise will be good for you). Or explore the outdoors in your yard.
Try going to the library. Look for a parents' group, or a play group. That way, you can talk to other adults, and your child will get the stimulation of being around other children.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
Media, including TV, computers and smartphones, have become an increasingly large part of everyday life. So it's really important that we understand the impact media can have on children. We need to understand the impact on their development and behavior. We also need to understand the impact on the relationships and interactions between children and their caregivers.
This study is very helpful. We need more like it if we are going to have the information we need to make the best decisions about media, children and families.