TV vs. Radio: Which Is Worse For Your Kid?

What's all this noise?

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 
A toddler fiddling with a radio that's placed on a shelf above him

Turning your children into screen zombies is frowned upon by both the American Association of Pediatrics and common sense, but what about all that NPR (or Howard Stern, whatever) you always have cranked in the kitchen or the car? Is that having any effect on your kid’s development?

Lisa Guernsey, author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media-From Baby Videos to Educational Software-Affects Your Young Child and the Director of Learning Technologies Project at New America, a D.C. think tank, has some ideas about where and when we should turn the radio on (or even turn the radio up), and when we should let our kids’ ears take a breather.

TV Or The Radio

There’s no study specifically about having the radio on, but there has been a bunch of research done on the effects of background television. A recent study conducted by the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Harvard School for Public Health found “their results support previous short-term studies finding that both television viewing and sleeping in a room with a television decrease total sleep time, which can have negative effects on both mental and physical health.”

But is this a problem with kids being distracted by the sight or the sound? As Guernsey did more research, she found that even if the TV was far away, kids (and parents) didn’t communicate and focus as well. So, if the whole family is falling asleep to Fallon’s lip sync battles, you may want to power down.

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The Cocktail Party Effect

One of the most compelling studies about how sound affects kids comes from Rochelle Newman, who is the Chair of the Department Of Hearing And Speech Sciences at University of Maryland and also founded their Infant And Child Consortium.

Newman’s research focused on determining whether infants 6 to 7 months old could make sense of what their parents were saying in a room full of other people talking. It’s known as the “cocktail party effect”, and it has nothing to do with your child’s ability to make an Old Fashioned. “She created experiments that are the equivalent of radio on the in background, says Guernsey.

The results weren’t good. Essentially your infant has no idea who is talking to them unless they can see the words coming out of your mouth. Guernsey says this is because hearing isn’t fully formed in infants, and just like everything else happening with their forming brains, the ability to locate sound develops outside the womb.

How Is This Harmful?

Some studies have linked kids who grow up in noisy neighborhoods (like near an airport or a 5-mile radius of New York City) or in chaotic households to lower literacy rates later in life.

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Rachel Barr, Director of Georgetown’s Early Learning Project, has found that kids exposed to a lot of “adult-directed television” (not the pay-per-view kind, the evening news or Oprah kind) whether watching it or just having it always on, had lower executive function scores for things like memory, self-control, and focus than children who didn’t.

“There are some unknowns as to the causal link,” says Guernsey. “It was a red flag to me. All those years, those children possibly had to filter out what was going on in the background. Was it taxing something in their cognitive ability that impaired them in later years?”

So, Should You Turn The Radio Off?

While an incessant blathering in the background is likely detrimental to your kid (just ask Walter), the casual talk radio listener doesn’t need to sit in silence. Maybe just play a few rounds of the “quiet game” more often.

“I was not perfect, and I need NPR in the morning,” says Guernsey. “But instead of a completely silent house, which wasn’t realistic, I was much more intentional about when I could have some quiet. Often that was the car rides or at mealtimes. Sometimes it was nice to be in a quiet space.”

Clearly, she’s not a Serial fan.

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