Bryan Caplan  

Television Defended

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My colleague Russ Robert's not impressed by my claim that T.V. is great for the family.  My three main arguments, to refresh your memory:
1. Television is fun.  I don't want my son to miss out on one of life's great pleasures.

2. Television is a cheap electronic baby-sitter that allows parents of young kids to get a much-needed break.

3. When my son is older, the threat to deprive him of television will become one of our most convenient and effective tools of discipline.  The naughty corner's usually enough, but when bad behavior persists, it's time for a night without t.v.
Russ objects that "you can replace the word 'Television' with 'single-malt scotch' and the same logic applies."  Even if he were right, alcohol has obvious negative side effects that television lacks.  But I see major disanalogies on all three of my points:

1. Social drinkers often seem to be having fun, but other drinkers don't.  Kids are vastly more fascinated by television than alcohol.  And kidults notwithstanding, childish programming is a lot less fun once you're an adult.  So if you deny your kids Saturday morning cartoons, they'll probably never know their sheer joy.

2. Unlike t.v., alcohol is not a cheap substitute for a baby-sitter.  In fact, alcohol consumption reduces inhibition and thereby increases bad behavior.

3. Depriving drinkers of alcohol tends to make them belligerent, making it a high-cost punishment to impose.

Russ continues:
We spent a lot of hours reading to our kids. They all like to read. They also like to amuse themselves in a variety of non-TV ways. I think those are good things.
So do I.  Reading is a wonderful gift to share with your children.  But so is television.

His last point:
[S]tudies that relate the family environment to various outcomes (IQ, criminality, happiness) are not experiments where people parent in random ways and the results are observed. People parent as best they can. The fact that there is little relationship between parenting strategies and outcomes does not mean that ANY parenting strategy will have no effect.
Actually, simple observational studies do find a negative correlation between television viewing and various measures of success.  In the GSS, for example, the correlation between IQ and hours of television watched is -.18.  But such results ignore the effect of genes.  My arguments rely on twin and adoption studies, which control for genes, and find little or no long-run effect of family environment on IQ, criminality, happiness, etc.

Russ is absolutely correct to state that "The fact that there is little relationship between parenting strategies and outcomes does not mean that ANY parenting strategy will have no effect."  Twin and adoption studies focus on vaguely normal families.  They aren't designed to detect the effect of rare parental strategies like nursing babies on single-malt scotch.  But they are ideally designed to detect the effects of common parental strategies - like allowing or disallowing television viewing.  They don't.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Hyena writes:

But why focus on IQ exclusively?

Mellors writes:

The studies of effects of TV viewing on children can measure only extremely coarse effects - effects that are unlikely to produce differences in your kids that are likely to matter to people who don't care about them - teachers and scientists and members of government panels.
our children are already pretty well destined to be who they are on those scales.
But you are writing in this blog precisely because you don't care about what people with such coarse yardsticks make of other people. You and your wife are are seeking experiences to make your children more curious, more responsive, more alert, more sensitive - better able to use more of the resources with which they are endowed by you two, by nature and by - whatever. TV watching will make them less so in every respect, and you know it. Every minute they spend watching TV as children will be a minute that is spent in a less enriching, more deadening way - every minute they spend this way will be a wasted minute of their lives.
That's not to say that using TV as an occasional babysitter is unspeakable - merely that you shouldn't be so darn well pleased about giving your baby X minutes of inferior experience as a matter of pride - when you have the option of giving it (X-Y) [where Y is when you are absolutely beat dead] minutes of something incalculably better, like reality, with shape and smell, that occupies space and time, and isn't deliberately designed to cheat the mind of these qualia - especially at a time in their lives which is painfully short and hugely important.
Get the rest you need - but don't deaden your kid's mind and senses more than need be, and don't take pride in doing so when you have to, as we all have to do.

Corey writes:

So twin and adoption studies show no long-run correlation between television watching and IQ, but do they show a correlation between television and any other behavioral traits that might be unpleasant? One could imagine that long periods of television watching as a child might have an effect on openness or social adaptation, even if it doesn't have an effect on IQ. I have no idea if this is validated by the evidence, but there are other variables to consider in addition to IQ.

FC writes:

Good TV deserves a good scotch.

JLA writes:

I don't think there are any particularly harmful effects of watching a ton of tv, but I do think you are underestimating the opportunity cost of so much tv.

Sports fulfill the 3 criteria you list, and have the benefit of being both physically and mentally stimulating (despite many athletes being "jocks" there is a lot of strategy involved). TV is, at best, only mentally stimulating (unless, of course, you watch an exercise show).

Matt writes:

"3. Depriving drinkers of alcohol tends to make them belligerent, making it a high-cost punishment to impose."

It may not be as extreme, but kids deprived of television can be very belligerent. As a kidult myself I can relate.

Evan writes:

JLA, having been a kid at one point, I can attest to the fact that my mind was stimulated more by one episode of Batman, Garfield, Godzilla, or Ninja Turtles than by all of the several seasons of sports that I played. In fact, I attribute the roots of my lifelong hatred of protectionism to my childhood love of Godzilla movies and cartoons, which made me identify with and idolize Japanese people instead of thinking of them as "those people that take our jobs."

Plus TV had the distinct advantage of not being despised by the other kids for striking out or losing the ball to the other team.

FC writes:

Mellors:

I'm guessing you haven't lived in the Washington DC area, because TV is better than real life there. What else can Bryan expect his kids to do in the two hours it takes to get anywhere at rush hour?

Bonus Question: How can you tell "The West Wing" was hopelessly unrealistic?
Answer: The characters didn't spend half the show bitching about their commute, rent and taxes.

swh writes:

My 16 year old daughter is a proficient piano player with 4 students she is teaching, she also dances with a professional dance company and is an A student. She plays piano accompanying the productions of her school drama club. She grew up without TV. Many more things are possible without TV.

Andrew writes:

I think you just like taking controversial positions, and I am fine with that, but your arguments, while logical in a A+B=B+A sense, are nonsensical when thought about in a large context.

1. We agree that television is fun, but your argument should probably take into account the fact that their are alot of other fun things you can do that do not entail such sedentary positions.

2. This is such a weak argument because it can be made for ANY free activity. If your kids liked reading, that would be a cheap baby sitter as well. If they liked playing with Legos, that would be a cheap baby sitter as well.

3. Your last argument is also weak, and probably the weakest. Number one, I think most people would have a problem with knowingly introducing something "fun" to your kids with the sole intention of using it as a "stick". Number two, if your kid likes ANYTHING, you can withhold it as a sort of punishment.

I think that in general, people who thoughtfully consider TV will decide that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Andrew T writes:

This brings up an interesting point with respect to the studies. If parents generally don't spend much time with their children then a result of minimal parental influence on the outcome of the child would not be too surprising. I don't know if the studies control for the amount of time spent with the parents. If not, the studies (and the way they seem to be interpreted) could be suffering from this omitted variable bias.

Rick Stewart writes:

Children become adults in spite of their parents, not because of them. No one knows what 'works,' and with the exception of extreme brutality no one knows what doesn't work.

There is no reason to have a TV in the house for your children, however.

My father didn't - I watched TV at the neighbors, every second I could (I was always amazed my neighbors weren't as fascinated with TV as I was).

My own children watched TV at their mother's house - my TV was strictly limited to watching Iowa football and basketball games, and went back into its cardboard box in the basement at the end of every game.

Tracy W writes:

Mellors: TV watching will make them less so in every respect, and you know it.

Hmm, I think this is an excellent example of over-confidence bias. You not only are extremely confident about the effects of TV watching, you even believe that you know what other people think about the topic.

Every minute they spend watching TV as children will be a minute that is spent in a less enriching, more deadening way - every minute they spend this way will be a wasted minute of their lives.

Do you feel this way about reading books too? How about parents who take their kids to the theatre?

One could imagine that long periods of television watching as a child might have an effect on openness or social adaptation, even if it doesn't have an effect on IQ.

And one could imagine that long periods of television watching as a child might increase a child's openness and social adaptation, even if doesn't have an effect on IQ. One could imagine that reading books will lead to your child being drawn into a magical world where they will nearly be killed by various monsters (I think this was the plot of The Neverending Story). One could imagine that playing sports will lead to your kid being accidentally killed by a flying baseball. One could imagine that teaching your kids to bike will lead to them coming off and receiving a serious brain injury disabling them for the rest of their lives. If you start stopping your kids from doing things simply because you can imagine that they might have some bad effect, they're not going to get to do anything at all.

Andrew:
1. Do you object to reading, as it's also a sedentary activity?
2. What makes you think that Caplan would object to his children reading or playing with Lego? If Caplan said he was happy that his son had learnt to walk, would you then conclude that Caplan didn't care if his son ever learnt to talk?
3. Irrelevant argument, as Caplan has two other reasons for introducing TV.

JLA writes:

Evan, having been a kid at one point, I can attest to the fact that my mind was more stimulated from playing one season of baseball than by all of the many seasons of TV shows I've seen. In fact, I attribute the roots of my lifelong love of game theory to my childhood involvement in strategic contests.

Neil writes:

A friend of mine told me of his families take on television. His mother would occasionally take the Windex to the TV while they were watching and say, "lies, lies, lies".

Kurbla writes:

Critical issue is violence. Search for 'Children and TV Violence' reveals that number of studies demonstrated less than desirable correlations.

Tracy W writes:

Neil - did she do this when they were reading books, too? And the newspaper?

Andrew writes:

Tracy,

1. TV and reading are both sedentary activities, I grant you that. I just would rather have my kids reading than watching tv.

2. You have to be confused to make that argument, and you are confusing me, but I am going to try to clean it up.

a. caplan's argument is that TV is a good psuedo-babysitter.

b. this is true, however I just pointed out that their are many activities that are good psuedo-babysitters. I also gave a few examples.

c. my point was that #2 is not a good argument for television being great for the family.

d. just so we are clear, i am not opining on what other activities kaplan likes or dislikes.

wcudon writes:

Reguarding television as a baby sitter. I agree that it is an attention grabber and that when taking care of kids it is sometimes necessary to have something to occupy their time so that you can do other things. Speaking from the babysitter point of view I believe that as a babysitter it is our job to take care of the child or children until we have to give them back to their parents. I agree that reading is beneficial but there are many educational shows that engage the kids along with teaching them a lesson. One thing I find more interesting is that kids I have babysat love interaction whether its through a game or even talking about a show after it is over. I am an adcocate for tv because it peaked my interest into my current field of study and without tv researching in books would not have given me a very good idea of what was to be expected because although reading and understanding gets a point across points can also be attained through watching and taking in a process even if it is brief on a TV show.

Tracy W writes:

Andrew. 1. "I just would rather have my kids reading than watching tv.". Interesting, so you prefer reading to watching TV. Do you object to reading, though, compared to a more active activity, like playing sports?

2. "this is true, however I just pointed out that their are many activities that are good psuedo-babysitters. I also gave a few examples. ... my point was that #2 is not a good argument for television being great for the family.

I don't see how your point here draws on anything else you've said. There may well be many other free activities that are good babysitters, depending on your child. Their existance doesn't suddenly make television any worse. If it did, then the existance of TV would imply that reading, or playing with lego is not a good pseudo-babysitting activity.

just so we are clear, i am not opining on what other activities kaplan likes or dislikes.

Thanks for clearing that up. My apologies for my misreading.

eccdogg writes:

"Every minute they spend watching TV as children will be a minute that is spent in a less enriching, more deadening way"

Wow what a bunch of horse hockey!

My daughter is 3 and watches a pretty decent about of TV I imagine that my one year old (born on the same day as Caplan's son) will also eventually watch quite a bit.

The shows that she watches are generally very high quality and do a better job than I could at teaching her many educational concepts or reinforcing what we are allready teaching her. Shows like Word Girl, Martha Speaks, Yo Gabba Gabba, Electric Company, Sesame Street, etc. These are great shows that teach her lots of skills. A preschooler has a lot of time on their hands, you can watch quite a bit of TV and still play outside a lot, do puzzles, read books etc.

Also one thing that folks have not pointed out is that TV does not have to be solitary time, it can also be family time. At night we all watch TV together and cuddle on the couch and talk about what is happening on TV. This is one way in which TV is better than reading. If we each had our nose burried into a book or magazine we would not be interacting with one another. TV is something that we can all get enjoyment out of. There are not too many activities that fit that bill.

Sure some TV is crap, but there is a lot of it that is not and you can watch a lot of TV and still have time to do a bunch of other enriching things.

sourcreamus writes:

A neglected reason for kids to watch TV is social homework. It gives kids a shared frame of reference with their peers at school so they have things in common to talk about and play. I grew up without TV for much of my childhood and was thus lost whenever my peers wanted to play CHIPS and when they played G-Force I had to be Keeyop. Plus TV is so much better today, when I see the quality of children's programming versus what was available growing up I want to punch Sid and Marty Kroft.

eccdogg writes:

Does anyone find these two statement funny when written together

"I never watch TV I don't even own one"
+
"All TV programing is crap"

How do you know?

Colin K writes:

You guys are like so stuck in 1992. Kids still watch TV? I want to know what your policies are going to be for the Internet, where the world's best library, video arcade, and red-light district are all within 30 seconds of each other.

jh writes:

"2. Television is a cheap electronic baby-sitter that allows parents of young kids to get a much-needed break."

And I'd bet the most common activity for kids while being with a babysitter is watching tv/movies.

Danny writes:

I don't think watching too much TV is harmful to IQ. However, for better or for worse, I would argue that kids who watch more TV become more uniform with other kids. The more TV a kid watches, the more they are likely to find in common with other TV raised kids, making friends easier. They are also more likely to share interests with other TV raised children. However this can possibly have its downsides depending on how you look at it.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and its only anecdotal, but it is worth noting. Look at the drawings of a kid raised without television, they will draw strange invented things created out of their varied experiences brought together by their imagination. Look at the drawings of a kid raised with a lot of TV and you are likely to find them drawing characters from their favorite TV shows.

The more stimulus a child receives from the mainstream (for example television, video games, popular books, or even public schooling), the more their interests, thoughts, and personalities will conform to the norm. For better or for worse.

agnostic writes:

Whenever someone argues publicly that TV is harmful to kids, and that's why I read so much to my kids (or whatever is better than TV), it should be understood as a signal to the parents' peers that they are good parents, not as a scientific argument about how TV is mechanistically related (or not) to the life outcomes of their kids.

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