Saturday, September 13, 2008

Is Television Good for Kids?

The Wall Street Journal had a provocative article last week about new research exploring whether television might actually be good for children and families in some ways. Here is a short excerpt from the opening to the well-written, in-depth article:

"University of Chicago Graduate School of Business economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro aren't sure that TV has been all that bad for kids. In a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics this year, they presented a series of analyses that showed that the advent of television might actually have had a positive effect on children's cognitive ability."

The article goes on to cite the findings from the study:

"The variation Mr. Gentzkow and Mr. Shapiro exploited was the timing of the introduction of TV into different cities. Television began taking off in the U.S. in 1946, after a wartime ban on TV production was lifted. But the Federal Communications Commission stopped granting new commercial television licenses from September 1948 to April 1952 while it made changes in allocating broadcast spectrum. There was a long lag between when some cities got television and when others did. The economists then looked at results of a survey of 800 U.S. schools that administered tests to 346,662 sixth-grade, ninth-grade and 12th-grade students in 1965. Their finding: Adjusting for differences in household income, parents' educational background and other factors, children who lived in cities that gave them more exposure to television in early childhood performed better on the tests than those with less exposure. The economists found that television was especially positive for children in households where English wasn't the primary language and parents' education level was lower."

Now, of course, there are limits to how much we can generalize from this study, as the article points out. The findings are from a different era, when the content on television was quite different (i.e. far less trashy). Moreover, they are seeing positive effects specifically in households where English was not the first language, i.e. immigrant households. Yet, I find the research intriguing, because I was raised in a household where English wasn't the first language. My parents came over from Italy just three years before I was born. We did watch a fair bit of television when I was young. Since my parents didn't speak much English at the time (or at least it was broken English), the television may have been beneficial in helping me learn the language. I think it's at least plausible that it could have had some positive effect. Having said that, I don't think my kids are in the same situation. They have plenty of other avenues for learning to speak, read, and write English, and they don't need the television to help them!