TV Can Slow Language Development, Even in the Background

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | June 2, 2009 2:07 pm

baby TVParents might know that sitting children in front of the television for hours at a time isn’t the best way to encourage intellectual growth. But a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows that simply having the TV on in the background can stifle interaction between parent and child, decreasing the number of words spoken and possibly slowing the development of a baby’s language skills.

Scientists have long suspected that TV viewing can damage early development. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding exposure to television before an infant is two years old, a period when important cognitive changes take place. “We’ve known that television exposure during infancy is associated with language delays and attentional problems, but so far it has remained unclear why,” said lead researcher Dimitri Christakis [LiveScience]. 

The researchers investigated by attaching sensors to both parents and their children between the ages of two months and four years. On sporadic days over a period of a month, the sensors recorded every word spoken or heard by the subjects. If a television was on, words emanating from the TV were counted, although researchers did not differentiate between whether subjects were actively watching the tube, or just had it on in the background as they went about other tasks.

This technology allowed Christakis’ team to quantify exactly the degree to which TV-viewing can cripple parent-child communication: for every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult, the new study found. Conversational exchanges between baby and parent dropped 15%, as did the overall number of vocalizations made by children [Time]. That’s important because previous research has shown that the more words children hear, the better they become at speaking. The exchange of fewer words, therefore, could potentially cause a deficit in language skills. 

The effects of background TV could be far-reaching, since researchers say that nearly a third of households in the U.S. keep the boob tube turned on all the time. “The newborn brain is very much a work in progress. All that cognitive stimulation is critical to the underlying architecture that’s developing,” [Christakis] says. “Every word that babies hear, and every time they hear it, is extremely important” [New Scientist].

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Image: flicker / roxeteer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: language, learning
  • Francesca

    Why don’t these studies differentiate between the types of TV content being watched? How can we equate parents watching Sesame Street or LeapFrog videos or nature/science documentaries with their children, which involves a lot of conversation between child and parent in my experience, with parents who have a game show on while ignoring their kids? Children pay a lot of attention to content – either live or virtual. Sit them in front of inappropriate mind-numbing shows and ignore them, and of course you will see language impact. Watch animated letters jump and sound their ways across the screen? Educational and a lot more fun than flashcards, and a lot of exercise as the kids (and parents) copy it as well. But arguments that equate all TV viewing as equal are simply ridiculous. Books are wonderful, reading is wonderful – but to dismiss additional virtual, gaming and television options out of hand seems to be indicative of an “we didn’t do that when we were kids so it must be bad” kind of attitude.

  • Sam

    Sure, it would be interesting to differentiate, but the fact that they didn’t doesn’t invalidate their data, which clearly shows the detrimental affect of watching the TV *in the way that people are watching it.* The data show that the children in the study would be better off, on average, with less TV watching.

  • Gwenny

    THAT’S why my kids are so smart and have such huge vocabularies . . I never shut up. LOL

  • Grant H

    The television. It’s something I have a few opinions about. I see it as a tool. It can be used for entertainment, like an office computer or gun powder can, but it’s suited for far more.
    So what about entertainment… When watching a movie or TV program and the morals depicted don’t quite match with your own sense of acceptable and wrong, do you dismiss it as just entertainment with no bearing on your ideals gained through life? Or do you re-assess the validity your own point of view? Or do you just absorb the life guidance messages (for lack of a better term) without thinking about it?
    We are careful when we operate a power tool, we know there are consequences to not being present in mind. I think the TV has dangerous consequences as well when used mindlessly.

  • Adrian

    Hi, my name is Adrian and I am a TV aholic. Yes, the TV is on all the time when we are home. I can say that watching educational content is great but even then we are saturated with the show’s content, advertising content, and the visual stimuli. Basically, brain overload. With that being said the retention of all the info is soon erased by the next show.

    I would like to try and turn off the TV more often, my children are becoming addicted as well. My 4 year old has his ‘shows’, which entails him sitting on the couch like a lump, having all creative and imaginative ideas fed to him. We have to correct this in our home.

    So hopefully, spending more time on non-tv related activities will help all of us use our imagination, communicate amongst each other, and bond with each other instead of the flat screen.

  • Angie

    I think Grant made a very important point, that seems to be ignored a lot. Moral deprivation due to certain things shown on TV. That´s a vital issue. As for documentaries on TV… I do find them educative too. You can also create child-safe internet and read online (Walt Disney has a lot to offer, e.g.

  • katcha

    after just reading the article of the storyteller and the listener activating the same sections of the brain, I think I object to this article except that it began with the adjective of “possibility” for slowing language learning. My kids seem much smarter then me and they all watched Sesame street and Barney way to much, as well as “back to the future”. If anything they are more open to many topics that I find complicated.

  • Eugen

    The article doesnt point to any type of tv show as to the concept in general.

    When something else is playing in the background, the mind of the baby is zoning out trying to assimilate as much data as possible.
    The most powerful way they can learn at that stage in life is by monkeying their parents.
    If a parent were to sit in front of the TV and TALK and COMMUNICATE with the child based on the program they are watching, THAT would actually increase the learning process and langauge accumulation of the child.
    It comes down to how much human interaction is there. The less direct interaction, the less evolution.


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