Boy watching TVMy almost 3-year-old son loves to watch Caillou on Sprout, a TV channel that carries programming for infants and young children. Throughout Caillou, there are many pop-ups that soundlessly advertise Sprout or the next show that will air. These pop-ups distract me as an adult. Have there have been any studies on how they affect young brains?

Perturbed by pop-ups in Quincy, MA

Dear Perturbed,

Because pop-up ads are relatively new, there’s not a lot of research on how they affect children. But there is research on how splitting attention affects kids. And that’s what happens when an animated ad pops up in the corner of your TV screen—two unrelated visual stories compete for your child’s attention.

Research shows that young children are distracted from playing with their toys when TV is on in the background—something similar may occur with pop-up ads. In fact, these ads are designed to capture viewers’ attention, so they may direct young brains away from the program they were engaged with.

For example, while your son is watching Caillou and learning about sharing, he may be distracted from the plot (and the lesson) by a pop-up of Clifford running, or Curious George swinging in a tree. Because these images aren’t part of the Caillou story, they distract your son and interrupt his understanding of the narrative. And remember that while it’s relatively easy for adult brains to switch between tasks, young brains haven’t yet developed the executive functioning skills necessary to make sense of competing information.

As a consumer and parent, you can write a letter to Sprout and let them know about your concerns. Sprout’s website says that “advertisements will never interrupt a program,” and if you feel that pop-ups do interrupt it, let them know. Not many people write to the producers of any media, whether so one or two letters can really make a difference.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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