How TV May Make Your Kids Smarter

by Joseph Miller, Esq.

Wasteful government spending is a legitimate problem that should be addressed, but it should not be approached with blinders on.  Many government-funded programs have been associated with positive socioeconomic outcomes.  PBS is an example.

Research on television viewing by children can often seem conflicting and confusing to parents, educators, and policymakers.  It is important, though, to distinguish between the effects of children spending too much overall time watching programming on television, computers, tablets, and smartphones, and the effects of the context in which children are exposed to content.  Accordingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under age 2, and no more than 2 hours of “quality programming” for children over the age of 2, preferably with parents watching with their children.

A robust body of research highlights some alarming statistics about the amount of video content children are exposed to. In 2005, a study published in American Behavioral Scientist found that children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years spend 2½ hours per day watching media content.  The study also found that infants are exposed to 1 to 2 hours of media content per day. Another study by Northwestern University released in 2011 reported that youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spent 8½ hours consuming media content each day, compared to a staggering 13 hours for minority children.  A recent University of North Carolina-Wilmington study further concluded that children spend an average of 4 hours per day with the television on in the background which, in turn, distracts children from play.  This excessive media usage has been tied to negative consequences in both health—namely, tobacco use, childhood obesity, and unhealthy sexual behavior—and academic achievement.  One study by the University of Virginia correlated Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants with impeded academic performance.

The logical response from parents in light of these statistics would seem to be that they should ban their children from viewing all forms of media content.  Indeed, President Obama has implored us on more than one occasion to simply “turn off the TV” (see here and here). Policy makers may also view this research as a justification to point to public broadcasting as an example of wasteful government spending. These approaches, while expedient, ignore the role of content in producing outcomes the majority of Americans find favorable.  In short, these responses ignore context: the degree to which the media being consumed foster interactive, rather than passive, viewer engagement, and the extent to which such programming may actually improve circumstances when consumed in moderation and when paired with comprehensive educational strategies.

PBS is one of the strongest examples of quality programming that has been associated with improved educational outcomes:

  • In 2011, PBS won 8 Parents’ Choice Awards for Television.
  • A recent University of Pennsylvania/PBS Kids study revealed that children who watched Super WHY! scored 46% higher on standardized tests than those who did not.
  • A Joan Ganz Cooney Center study showed that PBS Kids’ “Martha Speaks Dog Party” app improved vocabulary by up to 31% in children ages 3 to 7.
  • Several studies have shown PBS Kids programming to be associated with positive impacts on children overall, but especially on children from low-income backgrounds or who are at risk of reading failure, among which children of color are disproportionately represented.

Anyone who is genuinely concerned about education and concerned about racial and socio-economic achievement gaps should also be concerned about PBS’ continued viability.

Joseph Miller, Esq., is Deputy Director and Senior Policy Counsel of the Joint Center’s Media and Technology Institute. More information on Mr. Miller and his work can be found on the Joint Center website.
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