Does television impair intellect?


As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Is literacy declining? Today: Does television impair academic performance and cognitive development?

There is little doubt that television is on average bad for a person’s intellectual development. If you read through the studies below, however, you will see that there’s some dispute about whether a small dose of the right kind of television at the proper age might be beneficial.

  • A 2001 meta-analysis of data on more than 1 million students found “little room for doubt concerning the negative nature of the overall linear relationship between television viewing and educational achievement.” However, the analysis also suggested that the relationship was not best graphed as a straight line but rather as “an inverted check mark shape,” also called a curvilinear graph. That is, for each age, there is an optimal viewing time, up to which point television viewing is beneficial, and above which it is harmful. The author, Micha Razel, found that this optimum was 2 hours a day for nine-year-olds, 1.5 hours a day for thirteen-year-olds, and 0.5 hours a day for seventeen-year-olds. The benefit of the optimal viewing time decreased with age. Razel found that 55 percent of the students in the data set were exceeding their optimal viewing time by 3 hours a day, and that this excess viewing was lowering academic achievement by about one grade level. Razel speculated that “the finding of a larger optimal viewing time for younger children may be related to their higher quality viewing,” that is, to the probability that they were watching educational programs under parental supervision. [Micha Razel, “The Complex Model of Television Viewing and Educational Achievement,” {link to citation only} Journal of Educational Research, July/August 2001.]

  • In a summary of pre-2002 research, two authors concluded that “educational television has a substantial positive impact and that entertainment television has a negative impact.” The benefit of shows such as Sesame Street has been extensively documented, the authors wrote. One study found that boys who watched educational television at age five had higher grades even in high school (the effect for girls was not statistically significant). On the other hand, a study of the introduction of television into Canada found that its arrival lowered the reading scores of second graders. The positive impact seems to be limited to educational television watched during the preschool and early elementary-school years, and above an optimum level, television watching hampers academic achievement, in a so-called curvilinear graph. Does television displace reading? Educational programs encourage reading, but entertainment programs do displace it in the early, “decoding” stages when reading is an effortful activity. Once reading habits are established, television seems not to affect them. The authors were not persuaded that television shortened attention spans, interfered with homework, taught children to expect all learning to be effortless, or was inherently disabling of cognition. [Marie Evans Schmidt and Daniel R. Anderson, “The Impact of Television on Cognitive Development and Educational Achievement,” Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, {book available for purchase} Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.]

  • In a longitudinal study of 330 German kindergarteners and second graders, who were assessed through time-use diaries and achievements tests between 1998 and 2001, researchers found that children who watched entertainment television scored significantly lower on tests of phonological awareness, reading skills, and general achievement, even if their viewing was relatively light. The effect increased as time passed, so that by the third grade, heavy viewers were between one and one and a half years behind light viewers in reading scores. Since light viewers outperformed medium viewers, who in turn outperformed heavy viewers, the study seems to contradict the notion that the relation between television viewing and academic achievement is “curvilinear,” that is, that a certain moderate amount of television is beneficial. (Note that heavy viewers in Germany would be classified as normal viewers in America.) In the German study, the correlation between educational television and test-score gains ranged “from insignificant to moderately positive”—much less substantial than American researchers have found. The researchers controlled for IQ, socioeconomic status, and early literacy. [Marco Ennemoser and Wolfgang Schneider, “Relations of Television Viewing and Reading: Findings from a 4-Year Longitudinal Study,”{link to citation only} Journal of Educational Psychology, 2007.]

  • A survey of 1,008 parents in February 2006 found that babies who were eight to sixteen months old knew six to eight fewer words for each additional hour of baby DVDs and videos watched daily. [Frederick J. Zimmerman, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Andrew N. Meltzoff, “Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children under Age 2 Years,” {link to citation only} Journal of Pediatrics, August 2007. Alice Park, “Baby Einsteins: Not so Smart After All,” Time, 6 August 2007. Lisa Guernsey, “The Genius of ‘Baby Einstein’,” New York Times, 16 August 2007.]

  • Through a re-analysis of longitudinal health data for 1,278 children who were seven years old between 1996 and 2000, researchers found that hours spent watching television at ages one and three correlated with a higher likelihood of attention disorder at age seven. The correlation was present even when the data were controlled for factors such as mother’s drug use or socioeconomic status, and the investigators call the link “robust and stable.” Other researchers, however, have questioned the way that the study’s authors defined attention deficit disorder. [Dimitri A. Christakis, Frederick J. Zimmermann, David L. DiGiuseppe, and Carolyn A. McCarty, “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children,” Pediatrics, April 2004. Roger L. Bertholf, Steve Goodison, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Frederick J. Zimmerman, “Television Viewing and Attention Deficits in Children,” Pediatrics 2004.] Note: A later Danish study failed to replicate the findings; the study’s authors argue that this may have been because Danish infants watched far less television, and a certain threshold was not crossed by them.

  • The effect of television on cognitive development was studied in a later re-analysis of the Christakis etal. data set, this time focusing on about 1,700 children who were six years old between 1996 and 2000. Hours of television watched before age three caused lower scores on several different cognitive tests. Television watched between ages three and five improved scores on a reading recognition test and a short-term memory test, though not on others. [Frederick J. Zimmerman and Dimitri A. Christakis, “Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]

  • In a spring 2000 study of 410 third graders in northern California, students with a television in their bedroom scored lower on all tests than those without one, and students with a computer at home scored higher. The lowest scores belonged to students who newly acquired a bedroom television in the course of the study. However, self-reports by the students did not support the hypothesis that television use was displacing homework, in terms of time usage. [Dina L. G. Borzekowski and Thomas N. Robinson, “The Remote, the Mouse, and the No. 2 Pencil: The Household Media Environment and Academic Achievement among Third Grade Students,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]

  • A September 1999 survey of 4,508 middle school students in New Hampshire and Vermont found that the more time children spent with television and video games during the week, the less likely they were to have excellent grades, and the more likely to have below-average grades. When the data were adjusted to control for covariates such as level of maternal support and child’s rebelliousness, the correlation between television and grades held up, but the correlation between video games and poor academic performance disappeared. In a later letter, the authors suggested that their evidence on video games was weak because few children in the study played video games for as many hours as they watched television, and argued that if they did, the study would have been able to detect video games’ effect on grades. Academic performance was also impaired by having more cable channels available at home, being allowed by parents to watch any kind of content, and being allowed by parents to watch R-rated movies. [Iman Sharif and James D. Sargent, “Association between Television, Movie, and Video Game Exposure and School Performance,” Pediatrics, 2006. Jerald J. Block, Iman Sharif, and James D. Sargent, “Lack of Association between Video Game Exposure and School Performance,” Pediatrics, February 2007.]

  • The effect of television on attention and learning difficulties was studied through interviews with 678 families in upstate New York between 1983 and 2004, when the families’ children were age fourteen, sixteen, twenty-two, and thirty-three. Fourteen-year-olds who watched one or more hours of television daily were more likely to have poor grades, to fail to complete high school, and not to attend college. The effect was present whether the children tested high or low on verbal skills, and whether or not their parents had completed college. Those who watched more than three hours of television a day at age fourteen were even more susceptible to these failures; they were twice as likely not to earn a college degree as those who had watched less than an hour of television a day at age fourteen. Adolescents who watched more television at age sixteen than at fourteen raised their risk of future failure; those who watched less lowered it. When environmental factors were controlled for, learning problems did not in themselves predict future television watching habits. In other words, television was shown to cause academic failure, but not the other way around. [Jeffrey G. Johnson, Patricia Cohen, Stephanie Kasen, and Judith S. Brook, “Extensive Television Viewing and the Development of Attention and Learning Difficulties during Adolescence,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, May 2007.]

  • The effect of television on long-term academic achievement was studied through interviews with 980 New Zealanders born in 1972 and 1973, starting when they were age five and ending when they were twenty-six. The more television the subjects watched during the week in childhood and adolescence, the more likely they were to leave high school without a diploma, and the less likely to earn a college degree. The effects were present even after adjusting for IQ, socioeconomic status, and childhood behavioral problems. The authors considered it possible that a poor academic experience in high school might have been causing some of the increase in adolescent television watching, but point out that there could not have been any reverse causation at work in the strong correlation between childhood television watching and failure to earn a college degree. The less television a child watched, the better his educational outcome; there was “little support for the hypothesis that a small amount of television is beneficial.” [Robert J. Hancox, Barry J. Milne, and Richie Poulton, “Association of Television Viewing During Childhood with Poor Educational Achievement,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]

Next: Does internet use improve or impair academic performance? Does it decrease the amount of time spent reading?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

5 thoughts on “Does television impair intellect?”

  1. This comment is peripheral, but touches on a point you make in your NYer piece: "A feeling for a writer never touches the fact of the writer herself, unless reader and writer happen to meet. In fact, from Shakespeare to Pynchon, the personalities of many writers have been mysterious."

    Right. But feelings for characters (or perhaps ideas, ideologies, methods, stylistics) are what matter in the writers you mention, not their personalities. I don't even know the names of most of the writers or even directors of most of the TV shows I watch, much less their "personalities."

    On the other hand, in the realm of "non-ficition" one probably has a better feel for Montaigne or David Sedaris than one does even for Hillary Clinton.

    In fact, I'm sure I have a better feel for David Sedaris than I do for David Lynch (note the switcheroo). Of course, I've heard Sedaris on the radio, but somehow I feel a closer connection even to Mark Twain than I do David Lynch. David Letterman, of course, is another think altogether, (although he probably has more gag writers than Mark Twain).

    So my glib use of the Davids notwithstanding, I do think one responds to TV very differently than one does print, and one of the major differences is that most readers approach print with the eye-dea that the piece has been written by someone. We have authors and bylines, not to mention the updated hieratic scratchings which form the Roman alphabet, all of which imply an agency producing an artifact we must mediate (unlike the "moving picture," presumably more immediate; part of the point of "completing the cycle of the human sensorium" is producing cultural products which more closely mimic our lived experience–mimesis, if you will, thus coming closer to "losing ourselves," as you have Plato to have it).

    But the visual media can often be consumed as having been created by those we see producing it; after all, it's Lynch who is more the auteur than Raimi, though many more people have seen the latter's films. Probably more viewers of "Spiderman" give Toby Maguire credit for their pleasure in viewing than there are those giving Kyle MacLachlan credit for "Twin Peaks." I think the latter is more "literary" than the former–meaning that it uses techniques of literacy more than those of "visuality[?]" (you use the term "orality," but I really think that's an error when applied to our visual media culture).

    Of course, post-modernism uses techniques you note as "oral." In "Twin Peaks," inconsistencies exist and are never addressed, even though one can rewind and point them out. Likewise, in post-modern writing, inconsistencies are often introduced. In early post-modernism, inconsistency was celebrated, a breaking-down of the linear rationalism of the written record; but now, perhaps, our thinking has changed, and we simply enjoy the frisson of the indeterminate–something our illiterate ancestors might either have missed or experienced as a cognitive dissonance (itself often perfectly frisson-producing and pleasurable). In other words, when the text diverges from the rational, we just enjoy it (much as one who spots the car speeding by in the background of a scene from the "Lord of the Rings" just enjoys noticing it; or, my favorite, the boom mike in the scene overlooking LA in "Valley Girl." Doesn't Nicholas Cage and the concept of a valley girl just cry out for a boom mike dropping into the shot–in some ways making it more "real" than if the fact of the movie's "movieness" (and ineptitude) were not so revealed?).

    Wow, I've gone pretty far afield. But mainly to suggest that "author" is something that doesn't require, but which becomes stronger (and longer-lasting) in print culture (who wrote "Beowulf"?). Of course, my point about fiction v. non-fiction (made earlier in the context of our remembering the narrative voice of a written piece as belonging more to the "character" than the "author" [although these may be one and the same]) also begins to break down in oral culture. That, though, fits in with my belief that the closeness we feel to Spiderman is our belief that he is doing what we see rather than that he is acting out actions created by someone else.

    So, I guess my point is that if we return to more orality, we won't come to better understand Shakespeare or Pynchon; we will understand them less. The former because we will return to a world where record-keeping is weak (due to a lack of literacy), particularly for someone who is not thought particularly noteworthy (note that we lack solid records for most of St. Thomas More's life, and he was far more important to Henraic life than Shakespeare ever was to Elizabethan) or to those who choose to participate as little as possible in the media culture (pace Pynchon).

  2. My own data are definitely anecdotal (since they are my own and virtually unique), but I wonder if they might shed light on a way to measure the effect of television on learning.

    I was born in the mid-sixties, and I was a latchkey child. I don't remember ever having my TV-viewing habits monitored or curtailed, and I am certain that I watched at least three or four hours a day of TV once I entered elementary school (to which and from which I walked unsupervised everday; I would wait for my mother to get home several hours each day; needless-to-say, int the period that I waited, I watched TV). I hated so-called "educational TV," though I watch the occasional "Mr. Rogers" out of a sense of obligation (I did enjoy the Neigborhood of Make-Believe); I never liked "Sesame Street." An additional caveat: My school showed us "Electric Company" in the classroom several times a week (which I loved; I love this show to this day), as well as "Big Blue Marble," which I detested and remember absolutely nothing of.

    My point is that I have consistently scored in the 99th Percentile in both language and reading skills my entire life. By the time I took the GRE, I was in the 96th percentile for math, but still in the 99th for language, and above the 94th for logic.

    My question? Did TV hurt or help me? The bulk of the shows I watched were re-runs from the 50s (Lucy, Honeymooners), 60s (Dick van Dyke, Gilligans Island), and 70s (Brady Bunch). We also watched cop shows and westerns together in primetime, along with "The Wonderful World of Disney." On Saturdays I'd watch cartoons (along with "In the News," and "Schoolhouse Rocks," both of which I loved); in the afternoon I'd watch "Creature Feature," which would show one or two horror movies with arch commentary by someone named "Dr. Paul Bearer," and "The Wide World of Sports." We attended church on Sunday (Disney was a treat, actually, as we'd often go to Sunday night services, as well). Whenever it was on, my brothers and I would watch wrestling (itself hosted by the arch, wry Gordon Soley).

    In addition, my family (three slightly-older brothers, relatively well-educated and verbal mom) was very talkative and disputatious. We'd constantly talk or argue about what we'd seen or were seeing. My brothers and I regularly wrestled each other according to what we'd seen on TV, and my friends and I loved playing out Looney Tunes shows and Star Trek episodes (I was always Kirk, and I usually ended up imprisoned in my elementary school's monkeybars to be rescued by the [female] Spock and McCoy [yes, I played mainly with girls]).

    Did TV hurt me? Would I be even smarter now had I not watched? Or did the exposure to other cultures and times, not to mention the sense of irony TV gave me, actually help form my brain? What was the role of my very-verbal and critical family, which discussed minutia at the dinner table? What about translating the shows into active play?

    I also, according to my mother, taught myself to read at age 4 in a highly-literate family (we had many books, though most were of the popular- or pulp-fiction variety). We also listened to the radio and had lots of popular records.

    And the final wrinkle? Because of socio-political beliefs of my newly-married mom and her husband (my stepfather), I watched almost no TV during high school.

    During my entire life, I have read quite a bit. In elementary and junior high, I went to the library every Saturday; my brother and I would take out 10 or 20 books at a time. I read many a series, including "The Great Brain," Scott Foresman, "Henry & Beezus," and McCloskey's Henry Reed series (which reminds me that I really loved "The Patty Duke Show," as well). I particularly remember reading Vonnegut in 5th grade; I understood enough to know that I didn't understand much.

    I think TV can help, especially if it is eclectic and accompanied by discussion [and if it doesn't completely displace reading].

    Am I an outlier? Or is my experience a possible indicator of how it's not the quantity of TV but the quality of the TV-watching experience that matters? (I am very careful not to talk about the quality of the shows themselves; I loved Lucy, Beaver, and Gilligan, after all).

  3. Thanks for these thoughtful and well-developed comments.

    Harvey, I take your point that the distinction between text and streaming media should probably be cross-checked with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. In writing the NY-er piece, I was thinking to some extent of my experience as a viewer of the Iraq war documentary "No End in Sight," and how the documentary had to turn journalists into actors in order to tell its story, and it seemed to me this was in some ways a distortion of what journalists aspire to do, though a distortion made normal by the institutionalization of such roles as anchorperson.

    Ken: It's impossible to bring statistical generalizations to bear on personal experience. Though it's also impossible to resist trying, and as I was talking through this research with friends, we also found ourselves wondering what TV had done to us or hadn't. In terms of your test scores alone, you're clearly an outlier. But as your experience suggests, it's important not to distort sociological data by elevating it into scientific law. (Though I will say that it's suggestive that you stopped TV-watching in high school. The Johnson, Cohen, Kasen, and Brook study [referenced above] did find that students whose TV consumption decreased between ages 14 and 16 lowered their risk of academic failure. In other words, there's evidence that lowering TV intake even in the teen years can be beneficial.)

  4. Enjoyed the essay and was impressed with the breadth and depth of academic perspectives brought to bare on the topic. The peer-reviewed research studies listed above, although far from exhaustive, are relevant and legitimate. The list represents more background in the research literature than I would expect to find in most articles in a non-academic publication, even given the sophisticated readership of the New Yorker.

    However, even this short list highlights that it is difficult, if not impossible, and arguably inappropriate, to make definitive statements about the relation of television viewing (and by extension other informational and entertainment media) and academic achievement in general and reading in particular. The issues and potential mitigating factors are incredibly complex and interacting. Here are a few perspectives that I find interesting and relevant that were not considered explicitly in the essay, along with a supporting source:

    Differences in learning across different media may be explained in part by the different attributions people project onto particular media and the consequently different mental effort they allocate to acquiring information from those media.

    Television is 'easy' and print is 'tough': The differential investment of mental effort in learning as a function of perceptions and attributions. Salomon, Gavriel; Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 76(4), 1984. pp. 647-658.

    Restricting TV viewing does not necessarily stimulate more reading, but leads, kids at least, to engage in other activities that fulfill the same needs as TV viewing, which is not necessarily reading.

    Neuman, S. B. (1991). Literacy in the television age: The myth of the tv effect.
    Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

    There are a variety of other outside-of-school activities that are more strongly correlated with reading achievement (e.g., time talking on the phone) than watching television.

    Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how
    children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303.

    The dates on these citations indicate the length of time we have known about such factors (identified by highly regarded researchers, I might add) even though they are not often included in the discussions of how various media might or might not affect educational achievement, habits of reading, and so forth.

  5. David Reinking:

    Thanks for the kind and respectful words, and for sharing the perspectives and citations. I hasten to say that I've never claimed that this little online bibliography was "exhaustive"! One of the books I consulted has a bibliography on the topic of children and television that is 130 pages long, and that book is now several years old. While writing this article, I was wearing my journalistic hat, and in choosing which scholarly papers to read, I aimed for (a) peer-reviewed studies published in the last few years, and (b) recent surveys of the literature by scholars in the field who seemed (to an outsider's eye) to be widely respected.

    I hasten, too, to agree with you that "The issues and potential mitigating factors are incredibly complex and interacting." But I'm going to stick with my impression—admittedly, a journalist's impression—that the preponderance of the research suggests that entertainment television on average impairs academic performance, and that some educational television seems on average beneficial, though the benefit is disputed by some researchers. But I know that the relationships between television watching, reading, academic performance, socioeconomic status, and individual variation are very complex.

    Thanks for adding the new sources and perspectives to the discussion. (I do recall at least skimming "Television is 'easy,' and print is 'tough'"; it's also discussed, as a variation of the "mental effort theory," in the Schmidt and Anderson chapter cited above.) Let a thousand flowers bloom!

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