Why You Need To Shut The TV When Your Toddler’s Playing

As parents we’ve probably all had these moments—you are asking your child a question or to complete a chore and they are glued to the TV screen (or tablet). You ask multiple times, you maybe even raise your voice, but no response. You soon realize that the screen is taking all their attention and your efforts are useless.

We adults multi-task all the time. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to find yourself looking at your phone, watching TV and perhaps even working on your computer all at the same time. We think we are being productive but research shows that this type of multi-tasking really is ineffective.

What about the effects of multi-tasking on young children? Now, hopefully they aren’t using multiple screens at once, but they are often trying to play with toys while background TV is on. We have probably all done this in our homes—we leave the TV on with a program that is not child-centered (e.g., the news) while we make dinner or fold laundry. Our toddler happens to be in the same room playing but we do not think they are paying any attention to the TV…or are they?

More and more research has emerged in the last few years about the effects of background noise and TV on children’s playtime.

Generally, these studies find that young children do not multi-task well. In the presence of background TV, even TV that they are not interested in, toddlers tend to play less.

Closer analysis reveals that toddlers tend to look at the TV in short spurts. During these times, their play with toys stops and then it is hard for them to restart the play after turning away from the TV.

Sounds familiar, right? How do you feel when you are reading an article and then turn to look at the TV for a few minutes? It is hard to return to your article and refocus your reading attention. Now imagine trying to do a similar task but you are only 2 years old and have an immature brain. It’s easy to see why this multi-tasking presents a problem for young children.

The other key aspect of this research is that parents tend to interact with children less when background TV is on as well. This is crucial, as you can imagine, because the less parents interact with kids, the fewer words they hear. The number of words kids hear early in life in directly related to their language develop by age 2.

As with all things parenting, balance is key. Sure it’s not a big deal if the TV is on while you make dinner. However, if the TV is rarely off in your home, even when (seemingly) no one is watching, then you might re-consider. Those little eyes are always watching, even if we do not think they are.

It’s also a good idea to take notice to how your young children react (or fail to react) when the TV is on. Do they stop often to look at it while playing with siblings or toys? Do they have a hard time listening to you? These are just a few things to consider in how screen time is managed in your home.

We live in a digital world where screens are ever present. However, if we want our kids to learn presence, we have to guide them in learning how to manage technology.

About the Author

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development and parenting research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting expert, but rather a translator of academic research into reader-friendly articles.


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