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Is Television the New Secondhand Smoke?

Sure, we've been hearing about how watching television rots kids' brains for decades now, but apparently secondhand television can be harmful to children who aren't watching it, too.

According to a new media study presented at the International Communication Association annual conference in Phoenix, Ariz., children ages 8 months to 8 years are exposed to nearly four hours each day of television playing in the background.

Matthew Lapierre, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, Jessica T. Piotrowski, assistant professor for communication research at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and Deborah L. Linebarger, an education professor at the University of Iowa, surveyed more than 1,450 English-speaking homes with children from 8 months to 8 years old. The researchers found on average children spent four hours daily with television in the background—not counting the more than 80 minutes that children under 6 watch television shows on average each day.

Television was even more likely to be the soundtrack for young and minority children's lives. Children under 2 years old had background television on average 5.5 hours a day, compared to under 3 hours a day for children 6 and older. Likewise black children were exposed to 5.5 hours of background television each day, compared to 3.5 hours each day for white children.

Prior research suggests background television can have a "chronic disruptive impact on very young children's behavior." Studies have linked background television to less focused play among toddlers, poorer parent-child interaction, and interference with older students' ability to do homework.

"For every minute of television to which children are directly exposed, there are an
additional 3 minutes of indirect exposure, making background exposure a much greater
proportion of time in a young child's day," the study noted.

"Considering the accumulating evidence regarding the impact that background television exposure has on young children, we were rather floored about the sheer scale of children's exposure with just under 4 hours of exposure each day," Lapierre said in a statement on the study. Lapierre and his fellow researchers recommended that parents, teachers and early childcare providers turn off televisions when no one is watching a particular program and that parents prevent children from keeping a television in their rooms.

It's easy to think about this as just one more alarm about how our modern media environment is ruining our kids. Yet the more interesting take-away from this field of research is how critical it is for children to learn actively and socially. Children learn from adults speaking to, with and around them, and from actively engaging with their world.

Anything that limits or distracts from that active interaction can be a problem, but not an insurmountable one. For example, researchers at the University of Washington's Learning in Formal and Informal Environments, or LIFE, Center, is doing some fascinating work on the potential benefits of interactive media. There's also been some interesting work on using video conferencing to read with children.

Television, the internet and other media aren't going to disappear from children's lives, but they do seem to be evolving into more interactive forms. It will be interesting to see whether media will evolve into something more interactive than background noise.

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