The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children


  • Marie Evans Schmidt is now at the Center on Media and Child Health, Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA.

    Tiffany A. Pempek is now at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

    This research is based in part on a University of Massachusetts doctoral dissertation by Marie Evans Schmidt. Aspects of this research were presented at the meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development and at the meetings of the International Conference on Infant Studies. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS-0111811 and BCS-0519197). Findings and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect endorsement by the National Science Foundation. We wish to acknowledge the videotape coders for this project: Amy Fuller, Sean Kennedy, Lauren Murphy, Rae Gallagher, Carolynn Laurenza, David Massuda, Rebecca Edwards, Jill Rosenbaum, Kate Decker, Emily Duclos, Erica Gentuso, Kristian Lundberg, Alexis Lauricella, and Angie Naniot. We also wish to acknowledge Aline Sayer and Arnold Well for statistical consultation.

concerning this article should be addressed to Daniel R. Anderson, Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003. Electronic mail may be sent to


This experiment tests the hypothesis that background, adult television is a disruptive influence on very young children’s behavior. Fifty 12-, 24-, and 36-month-olds played with a variety of toys for 1 hr. For half of the hour, a game show played in the background on a monaural TV set. During the other half hour, the TV was off. The children looked at the TV for only a few seconds at a time and less than once per minute. Nevertheless, background TV significantly reduced toy play episode length as well as focused attention during play. Thus, background television disrupts very young children’s play behavior even when they pay little overt attention to it. These findings have implications for subsequent cognitive development.