Sunday, July 20, 2008

Television Noise Could Inhibit Toddler Learning

(previously published here at

To adults, background sounds from an unwatched TV show can be disregarded or embraced as comforting white noise, but a recent study shows this is not the case for infants and toddlers.
To their developing minds, TV noises could have the opposite effect, interfering with their ability to concentrate and learn according to findings published this week in the journal Childhood Development.

Researchers observed 50 toddlers between ages 1 and 3 at play in a room for an hour, with a half-hour of TV-free play and the other half-hour with the TV show "Jeopardy" airing in the room. When the TV was on, they noticed the children were more restless and distracted.

During a no-TV time, "the child gets an intent look on their face, they lean into the toy, their extraneous body movements decrease," wrote Dr. Daniel Anderson, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "When they're in that state, they're much more likely to be learning."

In contrast, the children played for half as long - around 15 minutes - when the TV was turned on, were noticeably less calm and glancing up occasionally.

"You actually can see sometimes more aimless behavior, walking around like they're not quite sure what they're going to do next, " Dr. Anderson said.

In describing how these behaviors could be observed, Dr. Anderson said, "it's not something that you would really notice from just watching the child. [When we started the study] I really didn't know if children could just focus on their activity and shut out the background noise."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero hours of TV-watching for infant and toddlers below age three, but a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2003 found that two-thirds of children under six years of age live in a home where the TV is on half the time, while one-third of children live in a home where it is on "most of the time" or "always."

Studies have been done on the effect of TV-watching on young children, but the effect of background noise on their ability to learn is new. Time-strapped parents and older siblings often combine TV-watching and time spent on childcare, so with young children being exposed to TV more frequently, the effect could be great.

For Dr. Gary Emmett, director of general pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, a complementary prudent question would be whether children would grow up with language and cognitive difficulties.

"Reading is directly correlated to success in school, while watching TV and other things that [doctors] regard as passive... is counter-related ... Watching TV, while not always harmful is not always helpful."

To combat this problem, Dr. Emmett notes that language-rich homes - where families read, talk and engage in regular verbal communication - the impact of background distractions such as TV don't have as much of an effect as in language-poor homes.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Research Institute, agreed.

"There have been a lot of studies that explored this, and early television is associated with delayed language, delayed cognitive developments, shorter attention span," he said, "What we haven't found yet is the mechanism."

According to Dr. Emmett, behavior and physical activity work together for health. As another study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, by the time children turn 15, their daily levels of activity slow down to below the recommended one hour per day.

In Pennsylvania and the tri-state area, there are pediatric medicine self-promotion programs available to families to begin working towards placing a greater emphasis on both feeding the mind and feeding the body.

Used at NEMOURS charity at the DuPont Hospital for Children in Florida, as well as in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and called the "5-2-1-almost none" program (in Philadelphia, it's the 2-1-5-0 program, after Philadelphia area code), it calls for: five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, two hours or less a day of screen time (TV, computers, video games), one hour of running rather than walking, and no sweets and drinks.

"We're trying to get in [to the family routine] in the simplest way we can," said Dr. Emmett, who applies it in his work with families. "People always want things to be simplified, but things are complex. [We have to address] both issues (body and mind), not one."

Heather J. Chin can be reached at

©The Evening Bulletin 2008

1 comment:

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