Does Background TV Harm Toddlers’ Language Development?


It is already known how important parent input is in developing children’s language skills, and that a reduction in child-directed language could have a negative impact on their language development.

New research suggests that the presence of background TV is a significant factor in reducing this vital input, affecting both the quantity and quality of language spoken by parents to their children.

In the study, parents of toddlers aged 12, 24, and 36 months were observed interacting with their children while they played during a 60 minute session, with a TV program on in the background for half of that time.

Background TV

Background TV is defined as content designed for older children or adults.

While the TV was on, the quantity of words and phrases as well as the number of new words spoken by the parents was lower than when the TV was off. However, the length of the phrases spoken was not affected.

Given that the language used by parents is so intrinsically linked with child language development, the results of the study suggest that prolonged exposure to background TV has a negative influence. In light of findings that American children under 24 months watch an average 5.5 hours of background TV per day, the effect may be substantial.

Study author Tiffany A. Pempek, says:

“Our new results, along with past research finding negative effects of background TV on young children’s play and parent-child interaction, provide evidence that adult-directed TV content should be avoided for infants and toddlers whenever possible. Although it is impractical and probably not desirable for parents to play with their young child all of the time, children do benefit greatly from active involvement by parents during play. Ideally, parents should play with their child without the distraction of TV in the background.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently upheld their recommendation discouraging media exposure for children under 2 years of age.

While previously the guidelines focused on foreground media exposure, recent reports have noted the potential harm of background exposure as well, a form of media which parents may not be aware has any effect on their child at all.

Further research is needed to ascertain if any form of media which disrupts parent-child interaction will have a similar effect, such as mobile device use, reading newspapers, or speaking on the phone.


Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Daniel R. Anderson. The Effects of Background Television on The Quantity and Quality of Child-directed Speech by Parents. Journal of Children and Media, 2014; DOI: 10.1080/17482798.2014.920715

Last Updated on December 5, 2022