The study, published in the July 2008 issue of the scientific journal Child Development, involved 50 children ranging in age from 1 to 3 years old. University of Massachusetts researchers observed the children at play with age-appropriate toys for one hour in two different circumstances.For half of the observation period, each child was allowed to play with the television turned off. During the other half of the observation period, the television was tuned to the adult game show "Jeopardy!" — complete with commercials.
The goal of the study was to determine whether background TV affected the children's behavior during play. Background TV was considered to be adult-oriented television programs that children might not understand and may even appear to ignore.
Researchers found that background TV disrupted the play of children at every age, even when kids paid little attention to the televised program. When the TV was on, the children spent significantly less time focused on play compared to when the TV was off.
Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that background TV is an environmental risk to youngsters and that parents should limit their children's exposure. Despite the fact that pediatricians recommend no television exposure for children younger than 2 years, three-quarters of American children currently live in homes where the television is on most of the time.
Previous research confirmed that babies and toddlers parked in front of television sets have a significantly higher risk for developing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by the age of 7. Consistent, heavy television viewing throughout early childhood has also been shown to contribute to behavioral and sleep problems.
Too much TV time isn't good for toddlers, and it's just as bad for older kids, for a variety of reasons. When kids spend much of their free time parked in front of the television set, they're at risk of packing on extra pounds.
As part of a sedentary lifestyle, excessive TV viewing is thought to be a major contributor to the problem of childhood obesity. A growing body of research suggests that the more television kids watch, the more likely they are to be overweight.
Researchers at Harvard University reported that kids who rack up more than five hours of television time a day are nearly five times more likely to be overweight than those who watch fewer than two hours a day. Unfortunately, very few American kids are limiting their daily TV time to two hours.
Watching television is a favorite leisure time "activity" among U.S. children, and they spend a substantial chunk of their lives engaged in this hobby. On a daily basis, the average child spends about four to five hours glued to a television set, and a third of American children watch more than five hours a day.
A study based on Nielsen Media Research data revealed that between the ages of 2 and 17, most U.S. children spend about two to three years of their waking lives watching television. The typical high school graduate will probably have spent around 18,000 hours in front of a TV set, but only about 12,000 hours in school.
For over a decade, the American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about the amount of time kids spend watching television at the expense of active play and exercise. For children over the age of 2 years, the organization recommends restricting TV time to two hours or less each day.
Limiting the amount of time that kids spend watching television makes it easier for them to manage their weight and stay physically fit. Children tend to eat too much while the TV is on, primarily because they pay more attention to what's on the tube than to what's in their stomachs.
Kids who spend less time watching television get a bonus benefit. Studies show that when the TV is off, children naturally gravitate toward more active pursuits, like playing ball and riding their bikes. At a time when more than a third of U.S. children are overweight, kids need all the opportunities to exercise they can get.
Fortunately, limiting children's TV time isn't complicated or difficult. In most cases, it's as quick and easy as pushing a single button.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com.