Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

Secondhand Screen Time - The Silent Killer!

Secondhand Screen Time - The Silent Killer!

“Oh, the TV’s on but he doesn’t really pay much attention to it. He’d rather be playing with his toys.”

I get a little worked up about screen time – I usually start talking about it at the two-year checkup and never shut up. The above quote is one of the most common replies I get from parents. I think most of us are pretty savvy about direct screen time and try really hard to not park our kids in front of the TV for hours a day. But what about “secondhand” screen time, where the TV’s on in the background while you all go about your business? Is that even a thing? Did I just make it up?

It is real. A 2005 study of kids under age six found that 35% live in a household where the TV is on all or most of the time. (1) That’s understandable – it’s white noise, low-key stuff like House Hunters, Sportscenter, maybe a little Mickey Mouse Club House. But that same study found that those kids were less likely to be able to read compared with kids from households that didn’t have a TV on in the background. And that makes sense. We know that the number of words your child hears by kindergarten is one of the biggest factors in how well he reads and writes in school. When the TV is on in the background your kid simply hears less words from you (and words over the TV, even from an earnest, even-tempered mouse, don’t have the same beneficial effect).

A 2008 study looked at one, two, and three year-olds as they played with toys for an hour, with a background TV on for half the time and off for half the time. The kids barely paid attention to the TV, just looking at it for a few seconds occasionally. But that distraction had a surprisingly big effect on reducing attention span during toy play. (2) A similar study of toddlers together in a room with a parent found that they had fewer (and poorer quality) parent-child interactions when a TV was on in the background. (3) “I am watching, sweetie, I love watching you jump off the. . . .TERRIBLE DECISION! HOW CAN YOU PICK HOUSE #2?. . .you’re the best, sweetie, of course I want to watch you do it ten more. . . .IT ONLY MET LIKE 1 OF YOUR 3 CRITERIA!”

Your time with your kid is important, and the stakes for his development are high. So don’t water it down with secondhand TV. Try some music or one of those “podcast” things I’ve been hearing about. And remember, even if your two year-old isn’t vegging out in front of the screen yet, he’ll be obsessed with it in another year.

Are there any times when background TV is okay? I'm glad you asked that - I do feel strongly that important televised sporting events are an exception and probably important for building character and healthy competitiveness in your child. I don’t really have any evidence on that, but you can just trust me. I am a doctor after all.

1. Television and very young children. Anderson, DR and Pempek, TA. American Behavioral Scientist. 48(5); 2005:505-522. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764204271506.

2. The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Schmidt, ME et al. Child Development. 80(5); 2009:1137-1151. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01180.x.

3. The impact of background television on parent-child interaction. Kirkorian, HL. Child Development. 80(5); 2009:1350-1359. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01337.x.

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