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Television could be hazardous to babies' growth


Shannon Proudfoot

Canwest News Service

July 15, 2008

A television chattering away in the background distracts children as young as 12 months - even if the TV is playing adult programs - and could represent "a significant environmental hazard" to their development, according to a study released Monday.

Researchers studying children aged one to three found that when a TV was on and playing an episode of Jeopardy, the toddlers spent half as much time playing with a toy before moving onto another activity and three-quarters as much time in intense, focused play as they did when the TV was switched off.

"It's all just play, but it's thought to be very important and essentially the child is programming their own brain with this kind of activity," says author Daniel Anderson, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts. "At the very least, parents should make sure children have plenty of quiet time for play."

The long-term effects of TV distraction need to be studied further, he says, but interrupted play sessions could lead to attention and other problems.

Most researchers - and parents - are preoccupied with the effect of TV shows designed for children or with the disturbing content of adult shows they watch, Anderson says, but this is the first research to examine the effects of background TV.

The idea for the study, published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development, occurred to him more than a decade ago when he was home with his one-year-old daughter and the TV was tuned to coverage of the 1993 massacre at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

"My daughter was just playing on the floor in front of the TV set and at some point it just occurred to me, 'Is this having any impact on her?'" he says. "If I thought she was paying attention to it I would have turned it off, which I think is typically what parents think about this situation."

Anderson says he and his co-authors chose Jeopardy for their experiments because it's exactly the kind of show a parent might have on at home and contains no objectionable content or flashy elements that would draw a very young child's attention. But even Alex Trebek's staid quiz show includes the ever-changing images and sounds that make it impossible for young children - or adults - to tune out TV the way they can a repetitive distraction like a noisy air conditioner, he says.

"The problem is that these days, many people have a TV in every room - there's a TV in the kitchen and there's a TV in the living room and there's a TV in the bedroom - and the tendency is to leave them on without thinking of it," says Chris Moore, a psychology professor specializing in children's social and cognitive development at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

But before TV became common, people often had radios playing in the background while they went about their lives, he says, and it's too soon to say whether this atmospheric TV exposure will have any long-term effect on children.

Previous research has shown that infants between 2.5 and 24 months old are exposed to an average of 120 minutes of TV a day, Anderson and his co-authors write, with half of that being programing aimed at adults or preteens.





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