Background TV and children’s language development

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In many American homes the TV is on most of the time even when nobody is watching. This means that toddlers are often playing with toys and doing what toddlers do with the TV on in the background. Recent research shows that such “background” TV exposure may actually stunt children’s language development.

Researchers brought parents and toddlers (ages 1-3) into a living room lab where an adult-oriented TV program was played for about 30 minutes. The child was given toys to play with, and the adult was told they could do whatever they wanted (watch TV, interact with their child, read magazines, etc.). Each parent-child pair also had 30 minutes in the room without the TV on. Each session was recorded. Researchers found that when the TV was on parents spoke fewer words and fewer “new” words per minute.

Why are these simple findings so important? Because how much a parent (especially mothers) talk is directly correlated with toddlers’ vocabulary acquisition, language complexity, and language richness. So, here’s the problem. In more than 1/3 of American homes the TV is on most of the time, even if nobody is watching–this adds up to about 5.5 hours per day on average. Toddlers, then, spend much of their awake time with the TV on in the background, meaning that kids in these homes get less language input from their parents, leading to a delay in language development.

The moral of the story is obvious. Let’s turn off the TV a bit more, and talk with our kids a bit more. Little changes could make an big impact in the lives of our kids.

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