Continuing our series on Screen Time with more questions, please remember that these are just here for your convenience and as a resource on this topic:

Does keeping the TV on in the background affect my child? 

Background TV negatively affects children’s social functions and performance of theory-of-mind tasks, especially for pre-school aged children (Rosenqvist et. al., 2016). “Prior to [theory of mind] development, children believe that everyone perceives and participates in the same reality” (Nathanson, Sharp, Alade, Rasmussen, & Christy, 2013). This is why toddlers often seem to act like the world revolves around them; because without a theory of mind, children do not understand that each individual acts based on their own personal beliefs and desires (Nathanson et al., 2013). Without a theory of mind, children do not understand the autonomy that exists between individuals, and research shows that screen viewing at an early age is related to reduced development of this understanding.  Passive, unstructured viewing of TV can disrupt a child’s ability to understand that “mental states (including thoughts, intentions, beliefs, desires, and emotions) are representational, can be private, and can change and differ across individuals” (Nathanson et al., 2013). This hinders children from understanding the different perspectives of others, possibly due to learning social scripts and imitating models from TV characters versus those found in reality via face-to-face interaction. This leads to impaired social behavior, especially when children model characters that are rewarded for undesirable behavior. Research shows that background TV may cause enough noise and commotion to disrupt children’s play and distract children from focusing on real-life interactions and conversations. 

It was found that background television tends to decrease social interaction between children and parents and siblings. This decreases the likelihood of hearing discussions of beliefs and emotions. It also decreases children’s likelihood of engaging in pretend play. Children with a decreased theory of mind, “may be more likely to use physical aggression to accomplish goals and may have difficulty relating with peers” (Nathanson et al., 2013). These children may have difficulty understanding social cues and predicting the behaviors of others. They may have less understanding of appropriate behaviors and may be less sensitive to others’ needs and also be less cooperative. It is important for parents to get more involved in their child’s social interaction and not rely on educational cartoons to replace the time spent in face-to-face interaction. Children tend to fully trust that TV shows true representations of our world; therefore, it may be difficult for parents to teach their children that what happens on TV is not how things always work in real life (Nathanson et al., 2013). Lastly, background television may distract children from thinking and pondering as they go throughout their day (Nathanson et al., 2013). Taking time to throughout the day to think promotes planning and self-reflection.

Should I allow my child to have a TV in their room? 

Parent and child conflict over what to watch on TV is often a power struggle that leads to parents allowing children to have TVs in their room (Nathanson et al., 2013). However, if family members are often retreating to separate spaces to watch their personally desired programming, family conversation and engagement are reduced which may lead to a decreased theory of mind and poor social skills (Nathanson et al., 2013). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, TV and other electronic media can decrease the time children have to spend playing, studying, sleeping, and communicating with family members (2016). Caregivers should be present during media viewing to be their child’s “media mentor” to help children learn from the time they do spend watching TV. If children go away to their rooms to watch TV, their caregivers are not present to interpret the media and monitor its use. Therefore, it is best to keep media devices in public areas of the household. 

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