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Kids and TV: Maybe It's Not an Idiot Box

It may seem unlikely, but new research says that increased TV watching alone isn't likely to harm children's thinking or schooling.
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Television has always been a menace.

Over decades, it allegedly has stifled creativity, stymied social development, inhibited academic achievement, and increased depression. At one time, a few of these charges made sense (and some still do), but now, with a hundreds of new-media options competing for eyeballs, many seem a bit quaint.

There's one criticism that could be shelved entirely: More hours of TV watching means lower test scores for young children.

New research, headed by Abdul Munasib at Oklahoma State University, finds that the amount of television watched has little discernible impact on young children's (age 5-10) academic achievement. The study's findings come at a time when 36 percent of children in the U.S. have a TV set in their bedrooms and 40 percent of 3-month-olds regularly are plunked in front of television or DVD programming.

The research, to be published in the Economics of Education Review, culled data from the 1990-2002 survey rounds of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and measured cognitive skills by using the mathematics and reading test scores from the Peabody Individual Achievement Test.

Using econometric analysis, researchers controlled for things like family structure, resources, parental control, health, urbanization level and many others among a cross section of children. While the study found a correlation between hours of television watched and lower test scores, once a variety of factors were controlled for, this relationship vanishes or "becomes too small to be of any real significance."

While the study doesn't suggest that watching TV is just as beneficial for children's development as a variety of low-tech educational tools, it stresses that television — in effect — has become a scapegoat for children who perform poorly in school.

"If a child is not very interested in school work, [he/she] is likely to do poorly at school," Munasib explained. "But clearly it would be wrong to conclude that watching more TV is what has ‘caused’ poor performance." In short, if research compares test scores to hours of television watched, it may find a spurious link between the two.

The problem, outlined in the study, is that some the existing research on television viewing and academic achievement is "purely descriptive" in nature — meaning that, in general, the studies don't control for other factors that may influence test scores.

This distinction is important, because research that makes headlines often points a critical finger squarely at television and not on a number of other factors that could influence test scores. Besides, Munasib isn't so sure that children who watch less TV are therefore more likely to do better in school.

"It's certainly true that those who are watching fewer hours of television have more time for studies," Munasib wrote to "However, whether they actually do so is another issue; the extra time may simply be wasted in some other way that does not impact test scores in any positive way."

His point: Television isn't the only distraction that today's children are likely to encounter when deciding whether or not to complete their homework. With more than 97 percent of adolescents (age 12-17) playing video games and becoming proficient at these systems at a younger and younger age, TV is just the tip of the idle-diversion iceberg.

Munasib's research is not a broadside on the reams of scholarly reporting that insists television watching is bad for children, but it does inform legislators that "proactive policies to reduce television exposure" may not be the most effective way to increase children's test scores and cognitive development.

"If the government passes legislation to encourage lower TV hours for children while everything else [in the school system] remains the same, it is unlikely to improve children's test scores," he wrote.