Does watching TV make us stupid?

How would Einstein have turned out had he watched TV?

Posted Mar 12, 2009

Synonyms of television include "idiot box," "boob tube," "goggle box," and other equally unflattering descriptors. The viewer is denigrated as a "couch potato." Is it true that the one-eyed monster robs us of the ability to think for ourselves?

Pejorative attitudes to TV are older than most of us. We harbor a collective suspicion, perhaps overblown, that TV damages children in various ways from encouraging antisocial attitudes and violence to promoting unhealthy eating habits and obesity. But does it live up to the rap of sapping their intelligence?

Educational researchers have been on top of this issue for decades. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of their results which are full of complexity and ambiguity. If you ask whether children who watch a lot of TV do worse in school, the outcome depends on what sort of home they live in. If the parents are middle class, then a lot of TV viewing goes along with lower school grades. Evidently TV time precludes interaction with the parents that may be intellectually enriching not to mention eating into time available for homework. For these reasons, and others, children should not watch more than three hours of TV per day.

Results for children of impoverished parents are altogether different. The more TV they watch, the better their grades. If parents are not stimulating, then the kids do better watching the idiot box than conversing with their parents, sad to say. Incidentally, it is not just a stereotype that poor homes are intellectually impoverishing. Observational research has shown that parents on welfare spend far less time talking to their children than working class, or professional parents, resulting in an impoverished vocabulary.

So much for families! What about countries? Children in wealthier nations score higher on IQ, do better in tests of school learning, and attain higher levels of education. (The U.S. is often highlighted as a relatively under achieving affluent country, particularly in math and science, but it can be considered the exception that tests the rule).

How does one account for the greater academic success in wealthy countries? It could be that they have more money to invest in schools, that parents prepare their children better for success in education, or that daily life requires more complex thinking and problem-solving. One way of combining all of these explanations is to note that education and intelligence are more important for success in urban economies than they are on farms. Alternatively, children in wealthy countries receive more brain stimulation through mass media.

When I analyzed the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (conducted in 1999), I found that the academic advantages of wealthier countries were explainable in terms of the number of newspapers printed and the number of TV sets per thousand people (1).

So here we have evidence consistent with the argument that mass media are intellectually enriching. Availability of televisions was particularly important for achievement in science. Such findings are intriguing and clearly not consistent with the view of TV as idiot box. Yet, it pays to be skeptical. Just because there were a lot of newspapers lying around in a country, it does not mean that children were reading them - even in 1999. Just because there were a lot of TVs in the country, it did not mean that more children were watching them, either.

Fortunately, another study, Progress in International Reading Literacy (2001), asked children about their use of leisure time, including TV viewing and computer access. Countries in which a larger proportion of children watched TV every day had higher reading achievement scores, which implies that they have higher IQ scores (as these two are very highly correlated). Daily access to computers provided similar benefits. What is more, use of these electronic media fully explained why children in affluent countries do better in school.

Just as TV is potentially enriching for youngsters in poor homes, it is also enriching for children in poor countries. Kids who watch television in moderation do better in school which is another way of saying that they have become more intelligent. So much for the idiot box and the boob tube!

1. Barber, N. (2006). Is the effect of national wealth on academic achievement mediated by mass media and computers? Cross-Cultural Research, 40, 130-151.