Friday, February 17, 2006

Tuning in doesn't make you tune out

As a parent, access to television is seen as a privilege and not a right. We place a television alluringly in the family room and then place an invisible wall around it saying 'Off Limits.' If a request to watch television comes in from one or more household members it is carefully reviewed by committee including taking of submissions from all interested parties, examinations of the time of the day and the day of the week, and a rigorous account as to the applicants' other merits (doing homework, asking nicely). Then a decision is based with reference to guidelines as well as precedent. Unfavourable decisions usually are accompanied by appeals and requirements for the committee to suggest alternative activities. Favourable ones are then referred to a lower level subcommittee to determine what will actually be watched on television.

In an earlier day, without DVDs or Tivo, that process would have been lengthy enough so that a new problem of 'there is nothing interesting on TV' would have come up and the TV may actually not get turned on. Today, we don't have the luxury and so practices are then reviewed by a non-consultantive panel regarding whether too much TV is being watched overall. In the end, I think an average child in our household ends up watching 4-6 hours per week (yes, per week; about a seventh of the average in the population. For TV loving parents such as us, this is somewhat surprising).

Our review panel devours any studies that might enlighten on this issue. The sum total of those studies has been basically uninformative. Some claim TV is plain bad, others it depends on what you watch and others depend on who watches with you. The end result is too use common sense as these outcomes also apply to books and computers.

A new study has appeared by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro that will get our attention this evening. These economists at the University of Chicago have used the fact that television was introduced at different times in different cities of the US. They have then taken standardised tests conducted in the 1960s to examine the long-term effects of television watching. Theoretically, if television is bad, if you had been watching it for 12 years before taking the test as opposed to 4 years or not at all, it would show up in test performance. [See this article in Slate for a more comprehensive explanation.] Moreover, this is all done at a time prior to VCRs etc where there was little ability of parents to choose what their children might watch and there was certainly no regulation of advertising content.

And the results: there is certainly no negative effect from television watching. If anything the effect was positive and more so for children in non-English speaking households and where the mother had less than a high-school education.

Can we disband our review processes now and let the kids watch TV until they are sick of it? Then we would have more time to get back watching as much TV as we did when we were growing up.

3 comments:

Rabee said...

My hunch is that children of academics do better academically if they watch TV less and talk to their parents more. Children of farmers do better as farmers if they watch TV less and talk to their parents more. I guess there are parents around whose children are better off academically if they watch more TV.

hc said...

Flynn effects and so on could derive from watching TV so the results are not that surprising.

I agree too with Rabee's comments that outcomes depend on the parent/student mix as your earlier post on the Heckman paper suggests.

If children get low cognitive input from their parents they might derive gains from Pokemon cartoons.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is in the original paper (which I haven't read yet) and this may support the point Rabee makes.

I am a bit worried about using television at the start of its life to identify effects of television. My limited knowledge of television history suggests that early television was different to later television. There have been claims that it was more highbrow in someways at first. Perhaps a bit more based on radio (various innovations often develop at first as variations on the pre-existing closest technology - electricity and concrete follow this pattern), perhaps a bit more adult oriented. If it was aimed more at adults then this would support Rabee's point a bit more.

The other problem with identification here is who had T.Vs early in this period? If it was more the case of high income families, then you are mixing other effects.

A perhaps more convincing story would be to examine the effects of introducing contemporary TV (or at least post 1950s TV?) into new markets - such as developing countries or even Australia? It may not overcome some problems but at least the quality of TV might be less of an issue