Despite these dark findings, one can also see (as Picard himself does) another side, as articulated by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a researcher who wants the more promising impacts of TV to be studied. “Their potential to enrich the lives of our children are, in fact, enormous and that potential needs to be explored,” he wrote.
“The media,” Picard suggests, “are an intimate part of our lives — no matter how young or old we are. We need to understand their effects, and how to make them more positive than negative.”
My new book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society, addresses primarily the effects of mass entertainment (especially storytelling) on adults, not children. However, I do pay attention to the health effects of viewing TV — which can be either negative or positive, depending on the content of the stories. It is true that there are physiological consequences of sitting too long instead of running and playing, and there are also social consequences of isolation from playmates too much. Such immediate, inevitable effects of prolonged viewing are certain to be deleterious. Kids need a certain amount of exercise, fresh air, and play with friends that excessive watching will preclude.
However, the other effects of television depend mainly on the content of the programming, and cannot be defined either as good or bad without reference to the quality of the shows. That applies to both the health effects and the social learning that come from exposure to them. The health impact mostly comes from the experience of empathy with fictional characters who are going through emotions that are either positive or negative. When we laugh, or feel joy, love, or appreciation of beauty, our immune and cardiovascular systems benefit. When we feel anger, anxiety, disgust, fear, or grief, there are measurable health effects too.
And TV shows also have major social impacts. Like Picard and Christakis, I believe that it’s immensely important to produce entertainment with beneficial content. Children imitate. Violent, anti-social behavior and sexual displays predictably evoke similar behavior in viewers — especially young viewers. Everyone learns by vicarious experience. Providing vicarious experience to millions of youth at a time is an enormous opportunity, as well as a potential disaster. No one imitates everything that is observed; we are selective. We imitate the behavior of those with whom we identify emotionally. Hence a writer who wishes to encourage a particular attitude should manifest it in a likeable character, not a villain. For example, not all televised violence affects viewers in the same way. If the violence is committed only by unlikable persons, a viewer is less likely to copy it than if the hero himself resorts to violence. Anyone studying the effects on children should, therefore, carry out some kind of content analysis, counting — just for starters — the ratio of anti-social acts perpetrated by the likeable and unlikable characters. There are also numerous other factors to take into account besides the simple quantity of exposure to TV.
In fact, there are methodological problems with the research that measures simply the amount of exposure. In the current (April 10) issue of Forbes Magazine, Matthew Gentzkow reports some research of his own that differs from the usual line of research. He points out the flaws in most other studies that show overall negative academic effects on children. Such studies, he complains, “measure how much television is watched by a sample of children, then ask whether those who watch a lot do worse than those who watch less.” But children are heavy viewers differ in other ways from those who view TV less. They are poorer, with less educated parents, and so on. Hence it is impossible to determine what is causing these children to do poorly in school – the TV or their other handicaps. Gentzkow and his colleague Jesse Shapiro decided to look instead for an event that was not related to children’s cognitive development but which changed the amount of TV that young children watched. What they chose to study was the introduction of television in the US around 1950. Some cities got TV as early as 1945, while others got it as late as 1953. They were able to compare the performance of children on standardized tests given in 1964, then compare the children who had TV when they were young to those who got it later.
Gentzkow writes, “Our analysis conclusively rejects the hypothesis that TV had a negative effect. In specific areas like reading and general knowledge (geography, science, current events and so forth), the evidence suggests that kids who grew up with TV scored higher. The size of the gain on these tests was of a magnitude roughly equivalent to 25 points on the verbal SAT.”
This research actually seems consistent with another unexpected finding that I mentioned in my book, and that Steven Johnson has argued in much greater detail in Everything Bad is Good for You, television may be increasing the intelligence of viewers. Around the world, intelligence is increasing at the rate of three points per decade. (The tests themselves are always re-standardized so that the mean is 100, but this requires “raising the bar” continuously.) The best explanation for this welcome worldwide change is the introduction of television. Johnson also argues that video games improve intelligence levels by giving kids a mental “workout.”
None of these benefits should be celebrated in a simple-minded way. There are almost certainly both harmful and benign effects of television. What needs to be done now is much more careful research to demonstrate just what helps kids develop, and what does not.