by Anya Dunham, PhD
Health guidelines recommend no TV for baby. But what about background TV: when the TV is on, but baby is not actively watching?
I am sure you know that major health guidelines recommend no screen time during baby’s first year and beyond.
But what about “background” television? In approximately 40% of families in the United States a TV is on all day, whether someone is watching or not.1,2
Studies say that background TV still affects babies, even though they’re not actively watching:
This is likely because even in the background, TV triggers babies’ orienting response: a reflex that fixes their attention on new sights and sounds.3 In and out of itself, this response is good and necessary: it’s one of the cornerstones of learning. But when it comes to TV, baby’s brain tries to figure out what’s happening (“Is this threatening? Is this important?”), but doesn’t get the chance to process any input. And all the sensory input becomes a distraction, or perhaps even a source of stress.
As babies grow, their attention gradually develops from the orienting response toward executive attention: they begin selecting specific information from sensory input.5 We usually call this focused attention, or focus.
Providing opportunities for uninterrupted free play is one of the best ways to help your baby develop focused attention. Being in a screen-free environment gives babies more opportunities for connecting, building strength, exploring, and learning.
Is a couple of hours of background TV a lot for a baby? It could be. Most babies sleep 13-16 hours per day6 and spend another 3 or so hours feeding and being changed and dressed. A couple of hours of background TV could add up to a quarter - or even half - of their awake time!
As you prepare for your baby's arrival, consider these ideas for creating a screen-free environment for him or her:
I explore these and other ideas to help babies connect, explore, and learn in my book, Baby Ecology.
1. Rideout VJ, Vandewater EA, Wartella EA (2003) Zero to six: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report: https://www.kff.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/zero-to-six-electronic-media-in-the-lives-of-infants-toddlers-and-preschoolers-pdf.pdf
2. Hanson K (2017) The influence of early media exposure on children’s development and learning. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA, USA
3. Anderson DR, Pempek TA (2005) Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist 48(5): 505-522
4. Schmidt ME et al (2008) The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child development 79(4): 1137-1151
5. Posner MI, Rothbart MK, Voelker P (2016) Developing brain networks of attention. Current Opinion in Pediatrics 28(6): 720-724
6. Iglowstein I et al (2003) Sleep duration from infancy to adolescence: reference values and generational trends. Pediatrics 111(2): 302-307
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