The presence of adult television programs playing in the background of your home, may be affecting the development of your children, even though they don't appear to be watching, according to an interesting new study.

Child's play is more than fun and games. It is necessary for social and emotional growth and reflects a child's growing abilities to problem solve, use imagination, and sustain attention. Learning to play, like learning to walk and talk is a developmental process that occurs during early childhood and reflect internal neurological growth and external influences on the developing brain. Early play skills have been shown to both predict and influence a child's future thinking, problem solving, and focusing ability and by extension his later school performance.

...TV was on at least half the time or more even if no one was watching.

Television is on an average of 8 hours per day in most American homes, according to a 2005 Nielson report. Another study found that 75% parents of very young children reported that the TV was on at least half the time or more even if no one was watching.

So it is no surprise that many researchers in child development have been looking at the influence of TV on young children. Studies have demonstrated poorer cognitive and language development in children under 30 months exposed to TV. They have also shown a relationship between early TV viewing and later attention disorders.

The new study, by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, looked at what happens when young children are exposed to "adult content TV" (defined as programming that the child would not understand such as "Jeopardy") playing in the background while the child played. They reasoned that even though the children were too young to really watch and pay attention to the content of adult programming, the quickly changing sounds and visual imagery(every 6 seconds) on the TV might distract the children from their own play frequently enough to change it's quality and to interfere with the growth of play skills.

The researchers hypothesized that after a child looked to the TV and returned to play, the may have forgotten their ongoing imaginary game and were more likely to change to a different toy. Additionally, the background noise of TV may have the same generally disruptive effect on children's activities that has been observed in studies of the impact of noisy environments.

The researchers found television had a big impact on young children's attention and play. Having the television on reduced the quality of young children's play In fact, compared to children playing with no TV on at all, children exposed to background TV played less, had shorter play episodes per toy, and focused their attention for shorter periods of time per play period. The children glanced frequently at the TV screen for quick looks, and the more often they looked at the TV screen, the greater play their was disrupted.

This study investigated the impact having adult TV on in the background had on how children played. The children studied were 12, 24, and 36 months of age and were observed playing with Jeopardy on TV in the background. They were rated on characteristics of their play, their ability to sustain attention, the development of imaginary play with roles and stories, (known as complex play schemes), and their ability to tune out competing stimuli. They were compared to children playing without background TV.

Television's distracting properties affect parents as well as children. Other studies have shown that the quality and quantity of parent child interactions were negatively affected when parents were distracted by the television. This raises concerns of a two-pronged impact of TV, which compounds the developmental risk: decreased parent-child interaction, and poorer development of children's play skills.

The UMASS researchers concluded that their study raised significant questions about the cumulative impact of TV watching on cognitive (thinking and reasoning skills) and language development and the ability to focus. They noted that while background TV reduced the length of the play episodes and the child's focused attention to play, further research would be required to define the implications. However, this study adds to a growing body of data which suggests that parents should be more mindful of the role of TV in their homes and the amount of direct and indirect exposure of their young children, and should consider child's play to be an opportunity to practice critical skills which have significant developmental implications.

The study was published in the July 14 online edition of Child Development.