The development of language and communication skills begins in early infancy and continues for the first several years of life as infants grow into toddlers, and preschoolers reach school age. Children learn to express themselves with sounds, words, facial expressions and body language; and they learn to understand what others are communicating to them. The developing brain has critical times when it is most ready to make the neurological connections that support language learning. If a child is deprived of the necessary exposure at the time when the brain is most receptive, these skills may be acquired less effectively or incompletely, leaving the child with delays or deficits in their ability to express themselves clearly and to grasp what is being said to them.

Every hour of television exposure in a child's day was associated with a measurable decrease in the number and duration of the child's vocalizations as well as conversational turns.

Because meaningful verbal and non−verbal interactions between infants and adults are so important to language learning, what effect does television have on this process?

According to a recent study, the presence of the television in the home has a huge impact on language development. Even having the TV on in the background intrudes on the interactions of adults with their infants. Every hour of television exposure in a child's day was associated with a measurable decrease in the number and duration of the child's vocalizations as well as conversational turns. The number of words the child heard from parents and caregivers was also greatly reduced.

Several previous studies of television viewing had shown that parents interact less with their children when the television is on in the room, and that the amount of time spent watching television was associated with self−reported decrease in parent−child vocal interactions. This latest study further examined the influence of children's and parents' or caregivers' television viewing and television's effect on their interactions.

Researchers used a digital language processor weighing only two ounces to keep track of verbal interactions between children and caregivers as well as the amount of time a television was on. On the same randomly selected day of each month of the study, parents were asked to place the recording device in the pocket of a specially made vest when the child awoke, removing it only at naptime, car time and bath time, and ending the recording at bedtime.

The data was then transferred to a computer for analysis of the child's home language environment. The computer was able to identify and distinguish between the sounds made by adult males, adult females, the study children, and other children. The computer also identified when it was unable to identify a dominant sound. From the child's perspective, this overlap would be experienced as noise rather than discrete voices and occurred when adult speech was mixed in with the sound of the television to a degree that neither one could be independently identified.

None of the 329 children in the study, all of whom ranged in age from 2 to 48 months, had any identified language delay, and all had English as the primary language in their home. Each recorded day provided a 12−16 hour audio record of the child's experience in that month. The number days that were recorded varied from 1−24 per child, with 8.2 being the mean. The experience of each individual child provided the opportunity to compare the child's own low TV and high TV days and their impact on the amount of vocalizations and conversational turns.

When statistically analyzed, television exposure was associated with significantly reduced child vocalization and adult word counts. For every hour of television exposure there was a measurable decrease in the number and duration of the child's attempts at verbal communication. Similarly, each hour of television exposure was associated with a 7% decrease of words heard by the child from the adult. There were 500−1000 fewer adult words spoken per hour of television.

Television viewing interferes with verbal interaction in a number of ways, so it is not clear what the exact cause of decrease in language use might be. Possibly all the following factors play a role:
  • Having the television on reduced the number of words parents spoke.
  • Television reduced child vocalization and conversational attempts.
  • There may have been periods of time when the children were left alone in front of the television screen to entertain them.
  • Even when physically present, adults are distracted by the TV and don't engage with their infants.

It has been estimated that 30% of households have television on almost all of the time. This poses a significant barrier to parent child interaction. And further, when parents are talking but their words are not distinguishable from the television sounds, the child experiences noise, rather than meaningful verbal interaction.

The findings from this study may explain the previous connection noted between infant television viewing and delayed language acquisition. It also calls into question the validity of commercial claims of makers of infant DVDs who say that their products are designed to provide parents and children a chance to interact, if they, too, simply provide distraction and background noise, which prevents young children from clearly hearing adult speech.

Attention problems and learning delays have been observed in children who are exposed to excessive television. The fact that language skills may be critical components of the ability to pay attention and to think, understand, and learn suggests that the negative impact of television on language has a secondary impact on attention and learning.

The study, which was published in the June issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, concluded that 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. When an infant watches television, whether a child−focused program or not, they are not experiencing the interactive give and take of communicating verbally with a parent. Conversational turns between adult and child are pleasurable, educational interactions that develop a unique cadence and social connection that does not occur with TV characters who provide only scripted messages.

The clear message is that communication and language skills begin long before the first "real" word is uttered. In order for the stages of brain growth and development that result in effective use of language to happen, children need verbal input throughout infancy and early childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children do not watch TV or videos before age two years. Parents should also be aware that while the television may seem to be in the background to them, it is dangerously intrusive in their communication and significantly decreases their meaningful interactions with their children.

Pediatricians and family practitioners typically screen children's language development at well−child visits, but parents are encouraged to bring up questions or concerns of their own. Additionally, parents who are interested in learning more about language development or who would like to know what types of vocalizations and responses their children should be demonstrating at different ages may find the website from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders helpful.