Bryan Caplan  

Why T.V. is Great for the Family

Philosophical Correlations... All the Devils are Here...
Yesterday my baby acquired a valuable life skill: He learned how to watch television.  I'm thrilled for at least three reasons:

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.

Won't t.v. stunt my baby's cognitive development?  Hardly.  Twin and adoption studies find zero long-run effect on IQ of all family environment combined.  Television's isn't just a drop in the bucket; it's a drop in a bucket that doesn't hold water.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
FC writes:

I suggest you only let the baby watch Ed Schultz on MSNBC.

Unless you're afraid it will turn into a Beriaesque monster or something. What are you, chicken? Come on, all great scientists experiment on their children.

Ted writes:

I like how you constantly pick-and-choose this IQ research and are completely oblivious to how silly these studies are.

Are you aware these studies who prove environment plays no role assume a priori with no evidence and for no reason there is zero interaction between genes and environment? The studies are totally spurious. Part of the reason this is assumed is because it's hard to analyze gene-environment interaction. However, that's a pathetic excuse - that's not science, it's guesswork.

If you make a different assumption - and what I feel is a much more plausible assumption, namely that genes and environment do interact you get a different result.

For example, Turkheimer et al (2003) have pretty well demonstrated that if you assume gene-environment interaction you get a very different result ( .

There are plently of other studies like Turkheimer. The minute you interact genes and environment, the results that environment doesn't matter disappears.

Considering I find it highly implausible that genes don't make any difference at all in how you respond in an environment, I don't find the evidence from silly studies that assume away interaction convincing - at all.

Kalim Kassam writes:

I grew up in a non-TV household for a long time, and don't think it was a good idea. There is a cultural gap between me and my age peers who had TV, and in elementary school in particular this was a big deal, I felt like an outsider.

I do wonder, though, if I would have gotten as good at imaginative play and been so driven to read everything around me in the counterfactual.

Hyena writes:

Television has opportunity costs and they're not insignificant. Most importantly, a child who sits in front of a TV all day isn't reading Don Quixote and so isn't able to capture status rewards for the rest of their life.

By letting children watch television, you are increasing the need for status-seeking behavior later when it could displace much more productive endeavors.

Raimundo writes:

Hyena hits on one of my concerns, namely getting kids interested in reading. From my own childhood experience, I remember having logged so many useless hours in front of the tv (mainly playing video games). If I had spent just a quarter of that time reading I can safely say that my life probably would be more enriched today.

Adam writes:

"Let's just plop them in front of the TV. I was raised in front of the TV and I turned out TV." - Homer Simpson

RPLong writes:

I wouldn't worry about the child's IQ, I'd worry about their willingness to engage in abstract reasoning. I think TV is really, really dangerous.

Having said that, it's probably better to limit TV time than to keep a child away from it altogether.

Jack writes:

I'm no expert, but my understanding is that it depends what the alternative (counterfactual) is. Less TV in exchange for more quality time talking, drawing and interacting with mom and dad? Or less TV in exchange for more time sitting a corner ignored? Also, at what margin? A little TV's probably fine, but if it crowds out other activities...

Finally, if the net effect of all family environment is zero, doesn't this mean it's possible (indeed, likely) that some family environment activities are beneficial while others are detrimental?

Floccina writes:

In response to Ted:
When people say IQ is 50% environment what is meant. Does it mean that if you lock a child in a room and give him barely enough nutrition to survive his IQ will be half what it might be if he lives with 2 loving very intelligent parents that devote their lives to educating him. Giving him all the latest education toys and playing classical music all the time. The IQ knock on TV would, I guess, be that the vocabulary is limited. How much could that change an IQ? I loud expect very little.

Now I think that there is one concern about TV and that is that TV gets people used to a high level of entertainment quality (we complain about it all the time but it real is a high level of entertainment compared to what people without TV have.) This can make it harder to focus on someone who is teaching you something.

Mo writes:

I wish my parents had regulated my TV watching much more than they did. Now age 29 I see the OC of watching all that TV is pretty high and I envy many friends who are better educated (in the informal sense) because they didn't spend 4 hours a day watching TV.

That said, a no-TV house probably also has negative effects. Moderation seems important here.

dave smith writes:

Thanks for the post, Bryan. The "TV as babysitter" is something many feel guilty about but shouldn't.

It is very healthy for the family for parents to have some time away from kids.

eccdogg writes:

I watched a ton of TV when I was young and I feel like I am much better for it.

I would often take themes from TV and branch off of them for my own imaginative time.

I also feel like I learned a lot from TV. I might spend all weekend watching old movies or TV shows and I would get interested in a subject they were covering and then go look it up in the encyclopedia. To this day I am great at all kinds of general knowledge trivia and a big part of the reason is how much TV I watched.

I work with two VERY intelligent folks who have broad knowledge and interest who say the same thing about their development and its relation to TV.

Needless to say I don't stress out to much about my 3 year olds TV watching. She watches tons of Yo Gabba Gabba, Electric Company, Sesame Street, Martha Speaks, Word Girl, Dora and Backyardigans. And I can say she has learned a lot from these shows, her language skills are great and she has learned lot of fun songs and manners as well. This is not to say that we do not teach her those things our selves too.

Plus she loves Dr. Who and Dancing With the Stars and both branch off to imaginative play when the TV is off. She likes to pretend she is Martha Jones and I am Dr Who and she loves to dance like dancers on DWTS.

Too me the anti TV crowd is based on some old fashion notion of what is good for a child. Sure there is a point when it is too much, but as long as your are getting in time for physical and social play and some time with the TV off I don't think it is much to worry about.

Hyena writes:

Mr. Smith,

Why do you assume that it is okay, even if Bryan is correct? At best, Bryan is demonstrating that TV doesn't make your children worse. Shouldn't you try to make them better?

Evan writes:

Hyena, Smith clearly said that:

It is very healthy for the family for parents to have some time away from kids.

Last I checked, living in a healthy family is good for kids.

That being said, I'm not sure we want parents trying too hard to make kids better. I think "heclicopter parents" are the end result of that.

Charley Hooper writes:

Your conclusions disagree with my research and personal experience.

If TV is so important in your life, perhaps you should teach me how to select channels. I must be doing something wrong. What I watch seems so inane, annoying, or irrelevant.

I look back on the periods in my life when I watched the most TV and those periods coincide with less personal development and enjoyment. One of my biggest regrets is the amount of TV I've watched when I could have been doing cooler things.

My wife and I raised our two boys on very little television and we rarely, if ever, had to punish our kids. We were so engaged with them that punishment was unnecessary. Now, I regularly have friends comment on how great my kids are. I look around me and see "regular" kids raised in "regular" households and am shocked with how poorly behaved they are.

Television crams stories and images into kids' brain so that they become receptacles rather than creators. You can see it in the way children play. Those kids who watch a lot of TV are acting out scripts--"Watch me, I'm Superman." Those kids who don't watch much TV engage in imaginative play while they create their own scripts. Perhaps their IQ's aren't much different, but I'd take imagination over IQ any day.

This is not hyperbole in the slightest: The ONLY times my son has every said he's bored are after a television session.

Tom writes:

It's not really an one or the other problem. My son is 12 and has always watched probably too much tv. He also plays football, basketball, baseball, and is a Boy Scout.

He has a 4 point average, and reads a largish book about every week. There is enough time to watch tv and live your life. The all or nothing approach is usually the worst.

Peter Van Valkenburgh writes:

Ted, the study you linked to here, while showing correlation between environment and IQ, suggests that the effect is non-linear and only becomes apparent at levels of extreme destitution.

That is hardly the case that Bryan is presenting here, with two hypothetical worlds: the Caplan Household With TV and the Caplan Household Without TV. I think it's safe to say that Sponge-bob Square-pants does not turn Bryan's home into a shanty-town (unless Hyena's suggestions about TV opportunity costs are real in the extreme).

As for myself, I'm pretty sure that soon after learning to watch TV the baby will learn how to use the internet and... in my opinion (despite possible negative externalities --more blogging Caplans) that could hardly have any negative affect on IQ (or really any affect whatsoever...)

Bill Watkins writes:

You can have all of the advantages of TV with none of the disadvantages by using DVDs as the only source of content.

Hyena writes:


Maybe it was just my brothers and I, but we were no bother to our parents. We were routinely left to do whatever we wanted, even on vacations. There wasn't really any helicoptering and not a whole lot of TV either.

If we had to be babysat, we had to participate. I handed a lot of tools to my parents, did some baking and so on.

Evan writes:

@ Charley Hooper

To me your expectation that kids invent their own play without relying on other creative works they've seen is like expecting someone to make a pot without learning anything about pottery, or paint a painting without ever looking at other paintings or studying art. They could probably do it, but the results would probably be less interesting than if they'd been able to build on the progress of others. I know that when I played when I was little I was able to draw on all sorts of ideas from works I watched and read and synthesize them in new and creative ways. I wouldn't have had nearly as many cool ideas if I hadn't been able to draw on the cognitive work of others.

Besides, even if they didn't watch TV, wouldn't kids just act out the books they had read instead? I know I sometimes played "Greek Gods," or "Dr. Seuss characters" when I was little.

As for channel recommendations, I can't really help you there because I usually watch TV shows online, or in DVD box sets. I know TV shows I've watched recently that haven't been inane, annoying, or irrelevant include:

Armored Trooper VOTOMS
Justice League
Gurren Lagann
After War Gundam X
Walking With Dinosaurs
Penn and Teller Bullshit
Death Note

Also, you really can't judge how well kid's behavior will end up by looking at how well behaved they are, because everyone has different facets to their personalities, and all you are seeing is the kid's "grownups are around facet". The "my peers are around" facet is the one that will govern their lifetime behavior, but sadly you will rarely see it.

agnostic writes:

"a child who sits in front of a TV all day isn't reading Don Quixote"

And the ones who aren't are? No, they're fleeing from books by some other means -- tossing the football around, climbing trees... what do girls do? Braid each other's hair, play dress-up, etc.

Sitting in front of a TV all day keeps the kid from having a social life and enjoying these other fun activities, but let's not pretend that in the absence of electronic screens they'd be deep in the Western classics.

Comic books, spy novels, war stories, other "genre" books, perhaps, but nothing that would win them status points.

Jacob M. writes:

Perhaps in relation to IQ the effect is fuzzy, but after reading your post I did remember a study mentioned in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago concerning exposure to electronic media and its relation to reading level. The paper it cited concerned a randomized study involving video games (so perhaps the WSJ author is stretching a bit), but it could still be an interesting counterpoint.

I must admit though, TV's one cheap/readily available baby sitter.

lemmy caution writes:

Turkheimer found very little dependence of IQ on the shared environment of middle class people.

For middle class families, he notes, "In the range where a lot of people spend their time—you know, 'Should I hang the black and white mobile over my kids' crib?' kind of thing, it probably does not matter."

I would stay away from showing TV to kids under 3 though. There could be a TV/ADHD link:

or not. They didn't adjust for SES or income.

David Friedman writes:

I see two problems with the argument:

1. IQ isn't the only relevant variable. The kid who spends his time watching TV might have the same IQ as if he had spent the time reading books or arguing politics online, but a very different background of knowledge and skills.

2. Bryan's family is probably fairly far out on the tail of some relevant distributions, and such families have little effect on statistical results. Judith Harris, who has written along similar lines about the effect of parental environment, also notes at least one special case—where the family is the peer group. That's rare enough so that I wouldn't expect it to show up much in the statistics, but very important if you have that sort of family.

Kai writes:

I think there are several weak points in Brian's argumentation. At first, I have no doubt at all that his kids won't "suffer" from watching TV and I am sure that it is healthy for parents to have some time on their own.

Then again I have some objections. I think we all agree that kids should spend some time on other activities. Some sports is necessary to develop your body and don't become fat (for most people). Reading is important for two things in my opinion. To fit in socially, having some knowledge and being able to talk about some books is surely beneficial. But I do not at all doubt that you could learn a lot of useful things from watching TV. More important is the skills you acquire when you read, which you need in both school and your job later on. You must be able to understand difficult texts, write emails your partner can understand and be able to write proposals for your projects...list continues.

Now I suspect that Brian is victim to some kind of availability/observation bias. I suspect that in his neighborhood and among his friends most kids watch some TV and still turn out to be nice kids. And that is exactly what the paper cited earlier says: There is no effect for middle-class families!. But then again, that is absolutely not where a problem exists. The problem lies with families where the parents do not care about there kids and let them watch TV the whole day. And when these kids come to school they are used to gameboys and TV (which is great entertainment) and teachers will have a terribly hard time to inspire them to read books. And most of the time these kids, and that is sad to say, suffer from this "starting burden" througout their whole life. I know people who have managed to get a decent job anyway, but they are the exception.
Accordingly I would say, this advice is not very problematic for caring, middle-class parents, but could serve as a cheap excuse for parents who do not spend much time with their kids anyway.

Would be very glad to hear Brian's take on this!!!

liberty writes:

Bryan -

This is one of many posts which indicate to me that you put to much value on regression analysis. A little experience in the world and some basic deduction can tell you the impact of television on a child, or on anyone. And the same can tell you something about the choice to let a tv "babysit" a child, and the difference between a childhood mostly filled with that compared with a childhood filled with climbing trees and swimming in the lake, or with music lessons, or with any number of other choices.

Of course these things matter! They may not - according to regression analysis - affect the take home pay of the adult or his or her IQ level in a statistically significant way, but they matter!

As for television in particular: it provides cultural context, information which can educate and enlighten, and entertainment. There is nothing wrong with television. However, in large amounts the returns diminish drastically. Because time is scarce, tv watching crowds out other activities. If one half-hour show becomes 4 hours of afternoon tv-sitting, the returns may be very low and the lost 4 hours of tree-climbing, music lessons, or whatever, very great.

Jeez writes:

Last night my 3 daughters (An 8 yr old and twin 7 yr olds)and I watched Nova - Decoding Dogs, instead of iCarly. It was a fabulous show that investigated how humans tamed wolves and dogs developed.

Though some og it was over their heads, we all learned a lot and since we are all dog lovers - we really enjoyed it.

My point is that there is a lot of great TV out there too....

Dan Weber writes:

My wife and I raised our two boys on very little television and we rarely, if ever, had to punish our kids. We were so engaged with them that punishment was unnecessary.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is a common attitude among busybody parents. "I didn't do X, and I never needed to punish my kids, so it must be not doing X that made them better kids, and obviously makes me a better parent."

But children are all different.

A. writes:

Video games are much more fun and addictive and thus much more effective as babysitters and discipline tools.

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