Why You Should Turn Down The TV Around Your Toddler

Toddler in high chair with tv in background
Nasos Zovoilis/Stocksy United

For a lot of families, the TV provides a constant hum of background noise in the home. Whether or not anyone is sitting and watching it, the TV might be on, giving news updates for parents and caregivers or relaying silly songs from a children's program.

Especially for stay-at-home parents, the TV might feel like a source of connection to the "outside" world and may even provide a source of distraction. I know that as a stay-at-home parent of young children for many years, the TV often felt like a way to remind myself that there was life beyond dirty diapers and the next feeding.

Unfortunately, all of that background noise from the TV may have an unexpected negative effect on your toddler's ability to learn.

How Background Noise Affects Your Toddler

A study in Child Development found that the background noise emitted by televisions could hamper a toddler's ability to learn.

The authors in the study pointed out that a lot of what we know about toddler language development comes as a result of studies that have been done in laboratory settings, which aren't exactly real-life situations. For example, it might be a little easier to measure toddler language and interaction in a quiet, controlled laboratory setting instead of a noisy living room.

To counteract that, this study purposefully looked at more "real life" language learning and how it happens under noisy conditions, such as playing at home while the TV is on. They looked at two groups of children: toddlers aged 22 to 24 months old and toddlers who were a little older, between 28 and 30 months.

The results found that toddlers were able to learn better when the background noise was lower. The noise was measured in decibels with a signal-to-noise ratio and not surprisingly, the lower the ratio, the easier it was for toddlers to learn. Researchers asked the toddlers to name new objects that they hadn't seen before, testing their ability to not only learn the new object and successfully retain that object's name to memory, but then to actually say it.

Both groups of toddlers were able to say the object's label when the person saying the name was 10 decibels louder than the background noise. However, when the signal-to-noise ratio was 5, they lost their ability to be able to name the object. The only way the older toddlers were able to name the object with that high of a background noise ratio was if they heard the word introduced first without background noise.

What the Study Means

Basically, the study shows that it's not only more difficult for toddlers to concentrate on a skill being taught to them when there is a lot of background noise from a TV on, but that the noise actually literally hurts their ability to learn, especially language skills.

Just like it's hard for adults to focus or concentrate on hearing someone talk or learning a new task if there's noise blaring in the background, it's hard for toddlers too. Young ears may be even more sensitive to noise levels too, so it's important for parents and caregivers to be aware of how much even "harmless" background noise from a TV can be.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend limiting screen time in general with toddlers, it's up to every family to decide what type of media is appropriate for their family.

So does this mean you have to ban the TV at all times from your house? Not necessarily. A parent watching the morning news while enjoying breakfast may not be a cause for immediate alarm and panic, but a good rule of thumb is to turn off the TV or other screens emitting background noise when they are not in use. Especially if you are trying to teach your toddler something, or focusing on any type of educational activity, the background noise from the TV may do more harm than good. So the next time you want to focus on those flash cards or teach your toddler a new word, just make sure the TV is switched off.

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