Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In defense of ... television

I confess, I always have a mixed feeling when I hear parents blame television for their children's bad grades in school. Something tells me this can be right and wrong at the same time. If memory serves, my childhood was full of tv-watching, far exceeded today's standard for children. But I wasn't the dumbest in the class. I know many friends who still remember perfectly the characters from movies or series we watched when we were kids. And they did well in classes. Of course this should not be for generalization. Today, many school kids are forbidden to watch tv more than 2 hours a day (poor them...). Some of them make good grades, some not. Some go to school at 7am and came back home at 7pm ("You'd better take this course and that course, not watching tv" -- moms say). Ask them calculus, and you'll be ashamed.

So, the best I dare to conclude about the effect of tv on children is: it's ... inconclusive.

Fortunately, some people have time to think about it more seriously. Here is their paper. Below is the abstract:
We use heterogeneity in the timing of television's introduction to different local markets to identify the effect of preschool television exposure on standardized test scores later in life. Our preferred point estimate indicates that an additional year of preschool television exposure raises average test scores by about .02 standard deviations. We are able to reject negative effects larger than about .03 standard deviations per year of television exposure. For reading and general knowledge scores, the positive effects we find are marginally statistically significant, and these effects are largest for children from households where English is not the primary language, for children whose mothers have less than a high school education, and for non-white children. To capture more general effects on human capital, we also study the effect of childhood television exposure on school completion and subsequent labor market earnings, and again find no evidence of a negative effect.

But, speaking of tv, of course we should think about what actually is shown on that thing. Because that might make a big tilt on the conclusion. If your kids grow up watching Discovery Channel rather than MTV, probably they will have better grades (so far as school gives more weight to science than to fashion or music).


  1. Hmm... areas where televisions are introduced first can be argued to be more advanced (e.g. a TV shop would first open in a middle classer area first, then later in lower class area). So, the improvement claimed can be argued to be caused by inherent beter human competitiveness, rather than caused by the television itself.

  2. Agree, I always sceptical to any claim that TVs or video games are bad for you. The main problem is in establishing the direction of the causality. If the claim is that TV is bad, then it's not clear at all whether the 'badness' is caused by TV or the person is already 'bad' and hence watch TV a lot. The same for the positive claim. I didn't read the paper yet, so I don't know how they overcome this causality direction problem.

    To establish causal relation we need pristine randomization. We need to estimate the effect of treatment of the treated, not just the average treatment effect.

  3. Well, it really depends on what is shown and what kids nowadays have access to watch, right? Back in the good old days, our options were limited but that meant we also didn't have all those crappy programs that are shown today. I consider us lucky and kids nowadays less fortunate, simply because the options they have are more in quantity but probably poorer in terms of quality (unless their parents subscribe cabsat TV which offers a wider range of programs). And the channels you mentioned as examples are interesting. I happen to have a very close relationship with one of them :-)

  4. "I guess that's the human-capital of the parents (education, etc) that drives the kids preference." >>> Does this mean education is therefore important?

  5. truth is, rather than watching giraffe pooping on Animal Planet, i'd choose to headbang with them watching MTV Rockumentary on Led Zeppelin. or Pink Floyd.

    TV can give a lot of information, sometimes too much. may it be on how gorillas making out, civilization in Bhutan or rockstar suicidal tendency, kids would and could learn from it. while one can be a good lead, the other can be a bad. whatever that is, i consider basic moral ground is much more compulsary than limiting tv time.

    i don't think having selection of Si Huma-Aneka Ria Safari-ACI makes us less stupid prone than having Bob The Builder-MTV Land-Inikah Rasanya? series. come to think about it : no - shitnetron sucks, period. and it's terifiying to find my 3 years old niece citing comprehensive research on Ariel Peter Pan scandals. forbiding or limiting them to watch TV or certain channel might make them 'smarter', but definately not street-smart. apparently the last one doesn't show in grades but imho, that's far more crucial than a piece of paper with human ratings on us.

    my only worry about TV and PC (game) is they would be less physically active and more anti-social. Spongebob might win over swimming or bicycling. and they tend to stay at home rather than come out and play with other kids next door. i mean, that's what kids suppose to do right?

  6. Aco, talking about kids always makes me nervous :-).

    But I think your caveat --what is shown in TV -- is way more crucial than the simple notion of "TV exposure". Although I don't know how to measure the quality of TV programs e.g whether US TV programs in 1948-51 as observed was less crappier than ours now. But, hey, look at Appendix Table 5, Superman is of course better than our sinetrons:-)

    And what about the variety? Does it matter? The more channels, the better? or worse? --for kids.

    Last, what can make kids watch Discovery, not MTV or Playboy channel? :-). I guess that's the human-capital of the parents (education, etc) that drives the kids preference. Or it is not, since they have free minds at early age?

    Don't say that you're going to pay the kids for not watching Playboy :-). Moms will throw papercups to you.

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  8. Dear, my guess turns...wrong.

    I looked up their paper again and on page 20 they said that theoretically the relationship between parental human capital (education) and TV viewing on kid's cognitive development is ambiguous.

    One argument goes that educated parents can select better program, thus positive relationship; while the other argues that kids watching TV displaces other human-capital building activities (reading books, perhaps) --which is better provided by educated parent's household--, therefore negative relationship.

    But empirically they find that TV is more beneficial for kids in household with, hold your breath, least parental human-capital (less educated ones)

    Yet it never qualifies that education is important, for sure :-)