We are not killjoy parents when it comes to life’s small pleasures. Sweets are allowed in moderation, and fizzy drinks occasionally (I personally find Coke the perfect hangover cure, so couldn’t exactly ban it without looking like the vilest hypocrite). Our kitchen/living-room often jitters to the sound of video games. The kids are allowed to watch TV, although we try to steer them away from the commercial channels and their endless adverts. The grown-ups have their fun too: there is usually some live cricket on in the background, even if no one is really watching it.
All that might be about to change, though. We are all familiar with the idea that too much TV rots children’s brains, causes hyperactivity and attention deficits and is generally a Bad Thing. A new study suggests that having the TV on could be harmful for young children even if they are not paying any attention to it. A team from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst wanted to find out whether ‘background TV’ (defined as programming not designed specifically for children) affected young children’s ability to ‘sustain an activity in a focused and organized manner’. Given that the average American TV set is on for more than eight hours a day, that is potentially quite a lot of background TV.
The Amherst researchers set out to test their hypothesis with a simple experimental design. They observed a group of children (aged one, two and three) playing with toys for an hour. For half of that time, a TV game show was on in the background. As expected, the children paid little attention to this grown-up programme. But on two crucial measures of play sophistication—length of play episodes and length of bouts of focused attention—the toddlers scored significantly lower during the background TV phase compared to when they were playing in silence. The findings were not entirely clear-cut: the maturity of children’s play, for example, such as the combining of two toys in a sophisticated manner, was affected in only a limited way by this kind of passive TV-watching. Overall, the authors describe the disruptive effects of background TV as ‘real but small’.
What lies behind these effects? The sound of the TV must have served as some kind of distraction: for a toddler, even a brief glance at the screen might be enough to disrupt an ongoing play routine. Secondly, exposure to excessive noise has been shown to impair cognitive functioning in children as well as adults, and TVs are inherently noisy things. I suspect that the speech-heavy nature of a game show would have been a big factor as well. It’s a well-replicated finding that unattended speech disrupts the brain’s ability to store information about sounds and language. Simply having to listen to all that irrelevant talking could have had a very disruptive effect on children’s working memory.
Anyway, it was evidence enough for me. Off went the cricket coverage and on went the soothing sounds of a classical radio station. No talking, therefore no unattended speech to damage Isaac’s concentration while he was colouring. I went as far as pretending that this was special ‘colouring music’, as though it had been specially composed to stimulate the production of stripy sharks (his current favourite artistic theme). Reassured that he was spending some quality time engaged in a constructive activity, I went back to the study and the computer. A few minutes later, shouts were heard from the kitchen. The reason for the fight? Athena had come in and started dancing to the music, which any fool knew was ‘colouring music’, and definitely not for dancing.
The post’s title comes from a phrase in David Wilson’s novel Love and Nausea.