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If you value verbal skills in children, please talk while the TV is on

June 4, 2009 |  6:30 am

Baby Watching TV is a lot harder than it used to be. For parents, anyway. Now, not only should they avoid using the television as a babysitter, distraction or even sanity-saving break, they apparently also need to keep up a running commentary (or pseudo-dialogue) on what the little ones are watching. 

Researchers had already established that time spent watching TV or videos is linked to delayed language development in children ages 8 months to 16 months. (Here's the synopsis of that study.) What they didn't know was exactly why.

So in a new study published this week in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Reseach Institute measured everything heard by, or uttered by, 329 children ages 2 months to 48 months. They did this by attaching digital recorders to the kids' clothing on various days throughout a two-year period.

Each hour of TV the children heard was linked to a 7% decrease in words that adults spoke to them. It was also connected to a decrease in the number of words (or utterances, really — these are very small kids) from the children themselves. (Here's the synopsis of the new study.)

The report concludes: "Having a television on within earshot of young children diminishes their exposure to adult words, their own vocalizations, and the conversational turns in which they engage."

This doesn't mean TV is bad, mind you. And the researchers point out that, unsurprisingly, many parents interact less with their children when the television is on. One of the things they seem to be taking issue with is the notion that some of the shows the kids are watching promise to encourage parent-child interaction — and that such interaction appears limited.

They add: "Given the critical role that adult caregivers play in children's linguistic development, whether they talk to their child while the screen is on may be critical and explain the effects that are attributed to content or even amount of television watched.

In short, it's OK to talk while watching TV.

— Tami Dennis

Photo: Playing with your baby is good; shushing her and yourself while watching "Sesame Street" ... not so good.

Credit: Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times