Katie McCarthy: Background TV noise can be distracting

February 21, 2013 

I am notorious for using the television as background noise.

When I was in college, the TV was almost always turned on while I was doing homework or studying.

And when I'm cleaning the house, I'll often find some sitcom to "watch" on Netflix instant stream -- a silence-filler made more convenient now that episodes play continuously.

But I was recently directed to a blurb in Babytalk magazine that referenced a study in the Journal of Pediatrics indicating that children were exposed to too much background TV noise -- 5.5 hours per day for kids under 24 months of age.

The implication is that this exposure distracts the child from his or her play and learning activities and may hinder development or create behavioral problems.

My husband pointed this out to me while I was on maternity leave and essentially homebound for several weeks (an isolation exacerbated by the fact that my child was born in the midst of a hellacious flu season). I was watching a lot of TV.

Before she was born, we had decided that our child would not watch TV until she was at least two. Now, it's not like I was propping her up in front of the tube at a few days old, but, I admit, it was on a lot. (Note: She, like most newborns, also slept a lot. So keep that in mind.)

While I had never previously considered the possible negative effects of background TV noise, I started paying closer attention to how she reacted to it.

Of course, when a baby is only a few weeks old, she doesn't react to much. In general, I made sure she wasn't facing the TV, but sometimes the changing images would catch her eye and she'd turn her head.

When this happened, I'd usually turn it off. Especially if it was just wasting energy.

As she's gotten older, she's started paying more attention to the TV when it's on, so I turn it off more often instead of just letting it fill the silence.

When I have time, I catch up on programming like "Sons of Anarchy" while she's sleeping. If she happens to wake up with a few minutes left of the show, I keep the volume low so she's not startled by the loud motorcycles or gun shots and I actually covered her eyes once when she glanced over during a particularly "adult" scene.

But as I've been able to interact with her more and she's more aware of her surroundings, it's less necessary to have background noise.

I suspect real the problem with background TV noise is more closely related to something Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., mentions in her piece on BabyCenter.com (a fantastic resource for parents, by the way): that perhaps parents/caregivers are the ones distracted by the TV, thus paying less attention to their child.

Activities like reading books, singing songs and playing on the activity mat with your little one are engaging enough -- there isn't any silence to fill.

Katie McCarthy, 706-571-8515 or kmccarthy@ledger-enquirer.com.

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