This article originally appeared on the Center for Research on Families (CRF) website.
Imagine that you’re watching your favorite television show while your child is happily playing in the same room. If your son or daughter isn’t paying attention to the screen, can the programming still influence their development? And if they are looking and listening, can young children even understand what’s coming out of the tube?
These are some of the questions professor emeritus of psychology Daniel Anderson, a CRF Family Research Scholar in both 2003-04 and 2007-08, has addressed through his research program over the past decade. In a new paper published in the Journal of Children and Media, Anderson reports that parents’ media use has indirect effects on their children’s language development.
The study included one-, two-, and three-year-old children and their parents, who were given the choice of a variety of popular sitcoms, reality programming, and other TV shows to watch. In each 60-minute session, the TV was on half the time and off the other half. Children had access to the same set of toys to play with while parents were instructed to act as they would at home.
After all the data were collected, undergraduate research assistants transcribed verbatim what each parent said. The transcriptions were put through a computer program that calculates how many new words, total words, and complete phrases were spoken.
As Anderson predicted, results showed that the number of words and phrases spoken per minute dropped when the TV was on. Parents of the youngest children spoke the least, a troubling finding given that toddlers learn language largely by listening to their caregivers talk to them.
The study was co-authored by two of Anderson’s former students, Tiffany Pempek and Heather Kirkorian, who each received their Doctorate degrees in developmental psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Kirkorian, now an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says parents might not realize how important it is to talk to their toddlers. She adds that younger children are often busy exploring their environment and less likely to go out of their way to interact with their parent.
Not so for the older ones.
“To put it bluntly,” Kirkorian says, “those older kids are harder to ignore.”
According to a recent survey, children two-years-old and younger are exposed to an average of 5.5 hours of background television per day. If parents are speaking less to their kids during TV time at home as in the lab, “that is a tremendous reduction in the language input during these first critical years of development,” Kirkorian said.
In the Children and Media paper, the researchers also argue that it’s probably not just television that has this effect on parents—any form of media, like texting on a cell phone or working on a laptop, has the potential to distract parents from interacting with their children.
Pempek, T.A., Kirkorian, H.L. & Anderson, D.R. (2014). The effects of background television on the quantity and quality of child-directed speech by parents. Journal of Children and Media. doi:10.1080/17482798.2014.920715
Prior research has identified negative effects of background television (TV) exposure on toddler toy play and parent–child interactions and has documented a negative association between early TV exposure and language development. It is hypothesized that background, adult-directed TV reduces the quantity and quality of parent language addressed to their young children. To test this hypothesis, the current study compared parent language directed at 12-, 24-, and 36-month-old toddlers (N = 49) in the presence and absence of background TV. In the presence of background TV, the number of words and utterances spoken per minute by the parent decreased as did the number of new words per minute. However, mean length of utterances did not differ. Because parent input is an important factor for language acquisition, development may be negatively affected by background TV exposure.