Many parents work hard to limit the amount of time their kids spend glued to the television, but a new study finds that exposure is nonetheless creeping into American kids' daily routines in more insidious ways. On any given day, children in the U.S. are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV -- a finding that experts say may take a toll on children's development.
Research measuring direct, foreground television exposure suggests that between birth and age 6, the average child in the U.S. watches nearly an-hour-and-a-half per day. But the new study, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, is the first to quantify kids' indirect exposure to TV.
"The sheer amount of exposure is startling," said study author Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, an assistant professor with the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the University of Amsterdam.
Researchers conducted a telephone survey of more than 1,450 parents or caregivers in the U.S. who have a child between 8 months and 8 years old. They were asked to fill out a diary about their child's typical day, noting when the child ate, slept and traveled from place to place. For each activity, parents were asked if there was a TV on in the background.
Overall, kids were exposed to nearly four hours of background TV on a typical day, and children under the age of 2 had even greater exposure, at 5.5 hours of background TV per day. Older children were in a room with a TV on for around two hours and 45 minutes per day. Children living in single-parent homes had more exposure, as did children in the poorest households and those with televisions in their room.
Although background television has not received the same amount of attention as foreground exposure, recent studies do suggest that just having it on in the background can have negative effects.
"Experimental studies have shown that background TV exposure has been linked to lower attention when kids are playing and weaker parent-child interactions," Piotrowski told The Huffington Post. "We do know from experimental studies that we should be concerned about it, but we don't know about a threshold at which it becomes a problem."
Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, said that background exposure distracts both children and parents. Not only are kids pulled away from sustained, imaginative play when they hear a certain sound or when a bright commercial momentarily catches their eye, adults are also less likely to interact with their children, which could affect language acquisition.
"We do know that when parents have a TV on, the level of communication drops dramatically," Rich said. "Both the parent and child are distracted." He added that background TV exposure can also have effects on babies, even if they cannot understand what is on the screen.
"If you look at breastfeeding, for example, it's not just nutrition, but also the intense bonding that is really, really important," Rich said. "If a mom is watching 'Oprah,' she's not looking at her kid."
The new study did not collect information about what type of programs children were exposed to -- that is, whether "Sesame Street" or CNN was on in the background. Research focusing on direct, foreground exposure has found that content is very important. Unsurprisingly, educational shows can have a positive effect, while violent or sexualized content has been tied to negative outcomes for kids. Future research is needed to look into the degree to which content matters in background TV exposure, as well as how a child’s age might moderate the overall effects, the study's authors write.
But Rich hailed the study as an important first step in making parents aware of just how much television has become a part of their child's environment. He likened it to the air we breathe: While we may not give it much thought day-to-day, he argued that we still want to know what it is, how it affects us and whether we can prevent any harm it may be causing.
"We can't just say, 'Oh, it's nothing. It's just background [TV],'" Rich said. "It's in our field, and it's designed to grab and keep re-grabbing [children’s] attention."