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Just how much 'secondhand TV' do kids experience?
Two kids playing in front of a fuzzy TV.Children between the ages of 8 months and 8 years are exposed to an average of nearly four hours of background television per day. Photo illustration by Tim Schoon.

Deborah Linebarger knew that American children were exposed to a lot of television.

The University of Iowa scholar and mother of four children, ranging in ages from 19 to 4, has watched her own offspring consume media content over the past two decades.

What she didn’t know was the sheer amount of background television that the average American child is exposed to per day.

portrait of Deborah Linebarger
Deborah Linebarger

Linebarger, associate professor in the UI College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, was part of a team that conducted the first nationwide study to provide accurate estimates of background television exposure to children.

Along with co-authors Matthew Lapierre of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and Jessica Piotrowski of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, Linebarger and her two graduate students produced a paper titled “Background television in the homes of American children.”

The results of this study were staggering, Linebarger says, revealing that children ages 8 months to 8 years are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV per day. Background TV refers to television that is on in the background in a room where a child is playing or engaging in some other activity unrelated to the TV.

Thankfully, she adds, her own children were exposed to far less television. And what they did watch was predominantly PBS. But that’s not the case, apparently, for many kids across the nation.

Lapierre and Piotrowski will present this top paper at the International Communication Association’s annual conference in Phoenix May 24-28.

While the research study will be formally unveiled at the conference, Linebarger says it’s also been accepted and will appear in a forthcoming issue of a major medical journal. The findings have already been stirring a lot of media and public interest nationwide.

Linebarger recently shared how she first got interested in studying television and why people should think of children’s exposure to background TV as being as harmful as exposure to secondhand smoke.

Why did you decide to pursue this study with your colleagues?

TV’s presence in our lives is ubiquitous. In fact, more than 99 percent of American households have at least one television; 72 percent have more than three. Because of this, most children are exposed to TV at very young ages. While prior studies indicate that content is more important than amount, what we didn’t know is how much time, on average, children were exposed to television in the background. The results were shocking. And having children who are 19, 14, 5, and 4, I’m really interested in the impact of TV on kids.

How is background television harmful to children?

Television is really good at getting kids’ attention. There are all sorts of auditory cues and music and sound effects that, even when you’re doing something else, can grab your attention. Even for us as adults, it happens. We’ll look. Kids, especially kids under 8, have a much harder time inhibiting that look to the TV.

So if children are playing with a toy, and they’re directing their attention toward that, and they hear something, it’s really hard not to turn and look. The problem is, when the TV is always on, kids will constantly shift their attention from the activity to the TV and back again. This constant shifting reduces sustained engagement in play and subsequent play quality.

Background TV viewing is also implicated in poorer executive functioning, a set of skills associated with attending, planning, concentrating, self-regulating, sitting still, not interrupting. It’s all of those skills beyond the academic ones that you need to be successful in school. The constant interruptions caused by background TV interfere with the development of this set of skills. It’s sort of like we know that smoking is bad, but we used to think secondhand smoke wasn’t a problem. It’s the same idea.

Tell me a little bit more about how you conducted the study?

We conducted a phone survey study between January and March 2009, with 1,454 English-speaking parents/caregivers of children between 8 months and 8 years. We discovered that the average American child was exposed to 232.2 minutes of background television on a given day. Using multiple regression analyses, we determined that younger children, children living in single-parent homes, and African-American children were exposed to significantly more background television than their older, multi-parent, and non-African-American peers.

Our survey was fairly unique. We were able to include a time diary that referenced the previous 24 hours of the child’s life. Diaries are the gold standard because they can give us a relatively true estimate of time spent in different activities. It’s very rare that telephone surveys exceed 30-35 minutes. Ours averaged 50 minutes. Parents would get on the phone and talk and talk about their kids. It was great. And 93 percent said we could call them again and do a follow up.

Were you surprised by any of the results?

When my student first brought me the table with the minutes, I questioned the data because it was an extraordinary amount. What was really distressing was the fact that the youngest kids, the ones under 2, were exposed to 5.5 hours of background TV per day. That’s more than anything except sleeping. And this exposure is in addition to active television watching, meaning that kids under 2 are probably exposed to six or seven hours per day of media, which is way too much.

Why are parents or caretakers exposing young children to so much background TV?

It’s because they don’t see it as a problem. It’s not made for their kid and so they think their kid isn’t paying attention. And parents tend to leave the TV on all day even when no one is actively watching it. When I come into my house and no one is there, I like to turn on the TV to keep me company. And it’s easy to forget to turn it off…you get up and leave the room with it still there and on in the background.

How did you get interested in studying the impact of television on kids?

I get a lot of ideas from watching my kids watch TV. Pretty much the only channel my kids watch (or watched when they were little) is PBS, although there are great programs now on other channels.

This particular study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the Ready to Learn Initiative. I was the media researcher charged with testing the efficacy of PBS kids’ programs as well as with identifying what features and formats best support learning while viewing. Programs like Super Why!, Between the Lions, Martha Speaks, and that kind of thing. From this research, we were gearing up to do an intervention study with low-income parents. We hoped to change the content of what they watched while simultaneously changing the amount of exposure to background TV to improve these kids’ developmental outcomes.

What advice do you have from this study?

Based on this study, we recommend that people keep TVs out of children’s bedrooms and simply to be mindful and turn television off when they’re done viewing a program or when they’re eating. We want to build awareness with parents that this is actually a problem.

What were your own first memories of or experience with television?

I loved Mister Rogers and Romper Room. When I was 5, I was on The Bozo Show, and I got to do the Bucket Bonanza. I missed the third bucket, and Bozo told me to take a deep breath and try again, and I did and got all six buckets and won a transistor radio and a red wagon. It was very exciting, and this sealed the deal with TV and me. I’ve loved television ever since.


Lois J. Gray, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0077
Deborah Linebarger, UI College of Education, 215-776-3138


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