Can letting kids watch TV make them better students?

With the end of the 2013-14 school year, families across the nation are turning to decisions about what to do with their kids over summer vacation. Some will be looking at summer camps away from home, others at summer sports or academic camps in their communities, and still others at how to keep track of their kids in the neighborhood while at work.

For those families at the low and middle rungs of the economic ladder, those without the resources to send children to camp or to other organized activities, the decision sadly is often whether to park the kids in front of the TV all summer or leave them to roam the neighborhood. But how will letting kids watch TV affect their academic performance?

This year’s winner of the John Bates Clark Medal—known as the ‘Baby Nobel’ prize in Economics because it is awarded annually to the best economist under forty—may have an answer. Matt Gentzkow, a Professor of Economics at the Chicago Booth School of Business won his award in part because of his application of empirical methods in microeconomics to interesting questions.

This announcement may also be celebrated by TV-loving children across America, who would likely approve of the findings in his 2008 paper Preschool Television Viewing and Adolescent Test Scores: Historical Evidence from the Coleman Study (with fellow Chicago Professor Jesse Shapiro). In this paper, Gentzkow and Shapiro find that watching TV in early childhood did not negatively affect standardized test scores in adolescence for the first generation raised watching TV, born between 1948 and 1954.

Those children are now the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s children, who can happily point to these research findings as they attempt to convince their elders not to take away the remote (with the argument that learning from television is even remotely possible). Of course, what is shown on TV these days is not the same as what was shown on TV then, but kids might argue that whether TV today is more or less educational is a question that can only be resolved with further observation.

Seriously though, the paper finds that the (marginally statistically significant) positive impact of TV-viewing at a young age was largest for children from underprivileged households, including those where English was not the primary language and where mothers had less than a high school education. In contrast, according to Gentzkow and Shapiro, “children whose home environments were more conducive to learning were more negatively impacted by television.”

The reason they provide is that for children in privileged households, time spent not watching TV was more likely to be spent on activities conducive to higher test scores: “this evidence would lead one to expect that television is more beneficial to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, because for such children the activities crowded out by television are likely to be less cognitively stimulating.”

Even if the authors find that watching TV may not be as harmful as the vast majority of pediatricians believe, their assessment of the differential impact of television on children from privileged and underprivileged households suggests that there are things other than excessively watching television that children could be doing that might help their cognitive development more than sitting in front of a television screen.

For example, children could attend pre-school or other forms of organized educational programming. They could read or engage in physical exercise. In addition, they could use digital technology, which has created a whole host of other activities that might foster cognitive development more effectively than television, such as certain interactive games and applications. Of course, whether these activities are mostly beneficial for the children depends crucially on what they are trying to teach.

If Gentzkow’s research on how watching television in early childhood affects later educational outcomes can lead some to consider alternatives to television for their educational value, then someday children may appreciate this Clark Medalist not for the excuse to watch television, but for the excuse not to.


Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez is a junior economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth

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