Researchers at Ohio State University interviewed and tested 107 preschoolers and their parents to determine the relationship between television exposure and their understanding of mental states, such as beliefs, intentions, and feelings, also known as theory of mind.
Parents were then asked to report how many hours of TV their children were exposed to, including background TV.
The children were then given tasks based on theory of mind. These tasks assessed whether the children could acknowledge that others can have different beliefs and desires, that beliefs can be wrong, and that behaviors stem from beliefs, the researchers explain.
The researchers found that having a TV in their bedroom and being exposed to more background TV noise was related to a weaker understanding of mental states, even after accounting for differences in performance based on age and the socioeconomic status of the parent.
However, they also found that preschoolers whose parents talked with them about TV performed better on theory of mind assessments.
The study shows that TV exposure may impair children’s theory of mind development, and this impairment may be partly responsible for disruptive social behaviors, according to the researchers.
“When children achieve a theory of mind, they have reached a very important milestone in their social and cognitive development,” said lead researcher Amy Nathanson, Ph.D.
“Children with more developed theories of mind are better able to participate in social relationships. These children can engage in more sensitive, cooperative interactions with other children and are less likely to resort to aggression as a means of achieving goals.”