NEW YORK — Other than sleeping and working, Americans are more likely to watch television than engage in any other activity.
A wave of new social science research shows that the quality of shows can influence us in important ways, shaping our thinking and political preferences, even affecting our cognitive ability.
In this so-called golden age of television, some critics have pointed out that the best of the form is equivalent to the most enriching novels. And high-quality programming for children can be educational. But the latest evidence also suggests there can be negative consequences to our abundant watching, particularly when the shows are mostly entertainment.
The harm seems to come not so much from the content itself but from the fact that it replaces more enlightening ways of spending time.
‘SESAME STREET’ AS A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT
Cognitive ability is a complex characteristic that emerges from interactions between biological dispositions, nutrition and health, parenting behaviors, formal and informal educational opportunities, and culture.
Studying the connection between intelligence and television consumption is far from straightforward, but researchers have developed compelling ways to isolate the effects of television.
Some of the best research has been done on the television program “Sesame Street.” The show, which began in 1969, was meant to develop early literacy, numeracy and emotional skills for children of preschool age. A detailed analysis of the show’s content in its first and second years reveals that 80% of the program was dedicated to those goals, with the rest meant to entertain.
Researchers randomly assigned groups of low-income children ages 3 to 5 into an experimental group and a control group. In the experimental group, parents were given access to the show if they lacked it and encouraged in person once a month to have their children watch the show.
Almost all (93 per cent) parents of children in the experimental group reported that their children subsequently watched the show, compared with roughly one-third of children in the control group (35 per cent). Among watchers, those in the experimental group also watched more frequently.
Over six months, from November 1970 to May 1971, the experimental group gained 5.4 IQ points — a large effect — relative to the control group and showed stronger evidence of learning along several other dimensions.
Gains in cognitive performance were especially large for those who viewed the show frequently relative to those who did so rarely or never. A more recent meta-analysis of published research in 15 countries shows that “Sesame Street” has similar effects around the world.
In newly published research, economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine examined longer-term effects of “Sesame Street” by comparing the educational outcomes of children and young adults in counties more or less likely to have access to the program during its early years. They found that children living in counties with better “Sesame Street” coverage were less likely to be held behind a grade level.
Other experimental research is consistent with the original “Sesame Street” findings. Low-income prekindergarten children scored higher on a social competence index six months after being randomly assigned to an experimental group, in which their parents were encouraged to replace age-inappropriate television with educational television.
LESS READING AND MORE WATCHING
In Norway, and a handful of other developed countries, average IQ scores have declined slightly in recent years, after rising for many decades. This is known as the negative Flynn effect, a variation of the more famous Flynn effect, which is named after the psychologist who first published comprehensive evidence of IQ gains over time.
Among native Norwegian men taking an exam at age 18 for military conscription, those born in 1974 scored 2 IQ points higher than those born in 1987.
In an academic article published this year, Norwegian economist Oystein Hernaes and his co-authors attributed some of this decline in IQ scores to access to cable television, which also coincided with a sharp decline in reading.
After the introduction of cable in 1981, Norwegian teenagers and young adults drastically cut back on daily time spent reading from 1980 to 2000, and increased their time watching TV. Moreover, relative to public television, cable television had far less educational content and was focused on entertainment and advertisements.
To estimate the effect of cable television on IQ scores, Norwegian scholars analysed data on the introduction of cable network infrastructure by municipality.
They calculated years of exposure to cable by considering the age of eventual test takers when cable became available in their municipality. They controlled for any potential geographic bias by comparing siblings with greater or less exposure to cable television based on their age when cable infrastructure was put in.
They estimate that 10 years of exposure to cable television lowered IQ scores by 1.8 points. In related research, Mr Hernaes finds that exposure to cable television reduced voter turnout in local elections.