Friday, March 18, 2011

Idiot Box

Television these days is no longer the “vast wasteland” bewailed by FCC chairman Newton N. Minow in 1961. There now are science channels, history channels, classic movie channels, all-news channels, cooking channels, and on and on. Nevertheless, by and large, we still consider an hour watching TV to be an hour wasted.

It is not clear that we should. Academic and IQ scores are higher in countries where people watch more TV. Within nations the pattern is more complex. Among poor people in the US, academic performance actually is positively correlated with TV-viewing in a straight line way. (See Barber, N. [2006], Is the Effect of National Wealth on Academic Achievement Mediated by Mass Media and Computers?) Yes, poor kids are better off watching more TV (which probably says less about the TV fare than about the real life alternative). Among middle-class and wealthy families the graph is bell shaped: there is a positive correlation between test scores and TV-viewing up to 3 hours of per day, and a negative correlation beyond 3 hours. Privileged kids who watch 3 hours per day outperform kids who watch 1 or 5.

So, perhaps we should give the much maligned “boob tube” its due. (Most TVs don’t use cathode ray tubes anymore, but there are channels which give the old moniker a new meaning.) We are not necessarily idiots for sitting in front of it. It is a sedentary way to pass time, however, so, just on general principles, we probably should get up and do something else occasionally, and I don’t mean sit in front of the computer. Playing baseball with friends, for example, not on Xbox but in the open air with real bats and bases, has some advantages. To steal a line from Bart Simpson, you won’t believe the quality of the graphics.

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