People do it every day -- pay bills online, fold laundry or do homework to the soothing sound of a spinning wheel, the drone of the evening news or the canned laughter of a rerun.
Just because you've learned to tune out the television doesn't mean infants and toddlers can, according to a new study in the journal Childhood Development. According to the study, that background adult television might be a harmful distraction.
Researchers observed 50 kids aged 1 to 3 at play in a room for an hour: half the time was television-free, and half the time the TV show "Jeopardy" was playing on a television in the room. Although the children in the room while the TV was on glanced up only occasionally, the researchers saw clear signs that the children had trouble concentrating.
"It's not something that you would really notice from just watching the child," says Daniel Anderson, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "I really didn't know if children could just focus on their activity and shut out the background noise."
During the television-free time, Anderson and his colleagues observed standard psychological testing signs that the toddlers were focused and learning.
"The child gets an intent look on their face, they lean into the toy, their extraneous body movements decrease," Anderson says. "When they're in that state, they're much more likely to be learning."
But when "Jeopardy" came on, Anderson and his colleagues saw different behavior. The children played for half as long as they played without background television, and they were visibly less calm.
"You actually can see sometimes more aimless behavior, walking around like they're not quite sure what they're going to do next," Anderson says.
The gulf is great between what pediatricians recommend for television watching and what children are exposed to in the home. According to a 2003 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of children under 6 live in homes where the television is on half the time, and one-third of children live in homes where the television is left on "always" or "most of the time."
But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero hours in front of the television for infants and toddlers under age 3. The average child under age 6 watches two hours a day. Even pediatricians aren't sure what this gap will mean for childhood development.
"The birthright for toddlers in 2008 is seemingly to be distracted," says Dr. Donald Schifrin, AAP spokesman on the impact of media on children. "By giving them the opportunity to be distracted we are conducting a rather uncontrolled experiment on our nation's children -- will our children grow up being distracted and distractable in their lifespan?"
If on one end of the experiment are the millions of children parked in front of the television, the other end may be the few kids like 3-year-old Cassidy Kanner-Gomes of Berkeley, Calif. Her parents watch zero television and neither do any of her preschool classmates, whose parents have all made an agreement with the preschool.