It's a rainy afternoon, there's a TV quiz show jabbering in the background, a young child plays sweetly with her toys, and Mum (or Dad) flicks idly through the newspaper - what could be wrong with this domestic scene? According to Marie Schmidt and colleagues, the background TV could well be disrupting the child's play, which in turn could have a negative impact on her cognitive development.
Fifty children aged between one and three years were videoed playing in a room for an hour while their mother or father sat nearby reading magazines. For either the first or second half of the session, a 21-inch TV in the room displayed the adult quiz show "Jeopardy!". Past research has tackled the question of whether children's TV shows are harmful or beneficial, but this study was interested in the effects of an adult TV show buzzing away in the background (see Psychologist magazine news item for more on TV effects).
When the TV quiz show was on, all three age-groups of children played less overall, each of their playing episodes was shorter, and their bursts of focused attention were shorter, compared with when the TV was off. However, the maturity of their play (for example whether or not it incorporated imaginary objects) was unaffected.
Schmidt's team described the disruptive effects of the background TV as "real but small". While the current study doesn't say anything about the possible developmental consequences of TV-disrupted play, previous research has shown that shorter play episodes and less focused attention tend to be associated with poorer developmental outcomes. Moreover, a previous unpublished study by the present team of researchers showed that background TV reduces how often parents interact with their children. "Taken together," the researchers said, the new and previous findings lead us to "hypothesise that background television, as a chronic influence, is by itself an environmental risk factor in children's development."
Marie Evans Schmidt, Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Anne Frankenfield Lund, Daniel R. Anderson (2008). The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children Child Development, 79 (4), 1137-1151 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01180.x