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Articles

Background Noise Can Cause Harm

WashingtonPost.com's On Parenting Blog

By Lisa Guernsey

October 16, 2007

When my first daughter was 18 months old, it seemed that she couldn't care less about television. One of her favorite things was a toy stroller, and I remember feeling almost proud of the fact that she would rather push her stroller around the couch than watch whatever emanated from The Food Network. Having the television on, it seemed to me at the time, made no impression.

Little did I know. It turns out that background television -- even simple background noise -- can affect young children more than we might think. According to a series of studies that have accumulated over the past decade, growing up in a noisy or "always on" TV environment may have negative consequences for speech development, playtime and parent-child interaction.

Some of the research comes from experiments that explicitly use background TV with children. Take, for example, studies from the University of Massachusetts' Child Study Center that show how background TV shortens playtimes and dampens parent-child interactions. Other studies are delving into the impact of background chatter and noise. At the University of Maryland, a series of studies by speech scientist Rochelle Newman have shown that infants can't pick out words in a stream of speech in the midst of background chatter. The ability to catch individual words, known as "segmenting speech," is widely known as an important prerequisite for language development. Several studies by George Hollich, a developmental psychologist at Purdue University, have found similar problems with babies and noise, even at levels that adults might consider relatively quiet.

Baby videos are the subject of much debate these days, while the issue of background television doesn't get much attention. Yet, according to 2006 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53 percent of families with children under 6 years old say that they have the TV on all, most or half of the time.

The evidence of harm from background TV was enough to get our family to start paying a lot more attention to how we used TV and radio. We took pains, for example, to save our stints with TV news until after the kids' bedtime. (That's not to say that our house became a tomb of quiet. Whose is with a toddler and preschooler running around?)

Are worries about background TV and noise on the radar screen at your house? Have you been to a playdate with the TV on in the background? Have you talked to your child's caregiver -- or even your own spouse -- about turning off the TV when the kids aren't watching it? Do you think parents pay enough attention to the impact of background noise?

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