Although the negative link between a child’s hours of television-viewing and performance on cognitive tests is well known, a new study finds no evidence that one actually causes the other.
The comprehensive research — which draws on the behaviour of 3,351 kids age five to 10 during the 1990s and 2000s — suggests advocacy efforts aimed at reducing children’s TV exposure aren’t likely to improve math and reading scores.
“Our objective isn’t to defend television,” says study co-author Abdul Munasib, an assistant professor of economics at Oklahoma State University. “We simply don’t find that watching more TV is what’s causing kids to do badly.”
Munasib and co-author Samrat Bhattacharya confirm the negative relationship between TV and cognitive scores, but those correlations disappear once such idiosyncrasies as ambition, family structure and household income are considered.
For example, children whose parents aren’t motivated to help them with schoolwork are likelier to watch extra TV and score poorly on tests than children whose parents are ambitious about education. It’s these unobserved characteristics — not the effect of watching TV per se — that colours the results.
“We find that lowering a child’s hours of television isn’t going to be enough to substantively improve test scores,” says Munasib, whose study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Economics of Education Review. “You have to replace it with something productive, such as learning and reading.”
Media literacy advocate Shari Graydon says the study confirms what conscientious critics have been saying for years.
“Parents who actively engage with their children’s cognitive development have a much stronger impact on developmental outcomes than the amount of screen time a child has,” says Graydon, a director at Media Action in Ottawa. “At the same time, the displacement factor remains an issue for anyone concerned about the broader development of a child.”