How much TV is too much for kids?

Communications studies professor Matt Lapierre is uncovering unsettling new information regarding prolonged television viewing and its effects upon childhood cognitive development.

In conjunction with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his doctoral studies, Lapierre's latest study distinguishes between two types of television exposure: foreground and background. Foreground exposure, more commonly understood by parents, refers to a child who sits deliberately in front of a television in order to watch. Background exposure, on the other hand, is an unplanned viewing experience, when a television is simply turned on in a child's vicinity.

Matt LapierreUnlike other auditory stimuli, like talk radio, or music, Lapierre and his colleagues stress that television places a demand on visual attention. As a consequence, whenever a television emits a sound or image-even if it is not the primary focus of attention-it remains an influence on cognition and behavior.

Because so many parents are already familiar with foreground exposure, Lapierre explains, they choose to monitor its duration. Parents are less familiar with background exposure and therefore, less aware of its effect on children; hence, they're less prepared to make informed decisions about household television habits.

A recent study from the University of Massachusetts found that background television exposure is linked to reduced interaction between children and their parents; further, television exposure inversely correlates with a child's ability to sustain attention over a period of time, which is in turn linked to academic success.

"The average child between the ages of eight months and eight years," Lapierre describes, "is exposed to close to four hours of background television on a given day. Two hundred and thirty-two minutes." This amount outpaces foreground exposure, by far-and the younger a child is, the more background exposure he is likely to experience.

Lapierre and his colleagues are determined to change this pattern.

The goal is not only to better inform parents, but to help policymakers make more informed decisions. "If you believe that background television is something that harms kids' well-being in the long run, there's a professional and policy goal to work toward, " says Lapierre. Another of his studies considered the effect of corporate advertising on children and resulted in new federal regulations for marketers.

"There's something worthwhile in making kids' lives better."