Child’s Play Is Serious — Don’t Interrupt

Children playing
@darby via Twenty20

TV background noise harms children. Turn off the TV when your child is playing nearby.

Psychologist Daniel Anderson is a fan of well-designed children’s television. He served as a consultant to Sesame Street and helped Nickelodeon create Blue’s Clues. His research has shown that high-quality children’s television can draw children into challenging cognitive tasks and help them learn how to pay attention.1

But he’s no fan of having the TV on in the background.

Years ago, when his daughter was young, he was working at home for a day. There was a big event going on, so he had the TV news on for most of the day. His daughter was playing nearby. He wondered: Is the TV having an impact on her play?2

It took him some years before he was able to design and implement a study to investigate the question. He invited families with one-, two-, and three-year-olds to come to the Child Study Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for an experiment.

The children spent an hour in a playroom with their parents, who were instructed to pay minimal attention to their children. The TV, playing Jeopardy!, was on for half the time and off for half of the time.

TV reduces childrens’ focus and fun during play

His findings were remarkable. Indeed, as he expected, the children did not look at the TV much of the time. The content was designed for adults and the children did not understand it. However, when the TV was on, children’s focused play episodes were only about half as long as when the TV was off.3

This matters a lot, because children learn tons through play. By interrupting their focus on play, TV reduces their fun and their learning. More recent studies have replicated Anderson’s findings and also shown that background noise negatively impacts children’s ability to learn new words.4

As Anderson will be the first to say, well-designed educational programming can be great for young children, especially when children watch and discuss the show with a parent. That’s not the problem. The problem is when you leave the TV on in the background.

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Child’s Play Is Serious — Don’t Interrupt
  1. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Synergy,
  2. Ellen Galinsky describes this research on pages 51–52 of her book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.
  3. Galinsky, p. 52.
  4. See, for example, this study led by Deborah Linebarger, associate professor of education at the University of Iowa, or this study by Brianna McMillan and Jenny Saffran on the effects of background speech on early word learning.