Everybody knows television is harmful for children, right? Well, I don’t. In my opinion, it all depends on what they watch. Television, like storytelling, can be good or bad for children, depending on the nature of the story and the way they receive the messages. To be sure, in real life, television has many well-known negative effects, but here I want to pay more attention to its positive side.
In an April issue of Forbes Magazine, economist Matthew Gentzkow reports in his article, ”Long Live the Boob Tube,” on research that he and his colleague Jesse Shapiro conducted concerning the cognitive effects of TV on children. He points out that the research showing predominantly negative effects is mostly flawed methodologically. Yes, it is easy to compare the intellectual performance of kids who watch a lot of television with those of kids who watch it rarely. And indeed, the watchers do tend to be intellectually behind the non-watchers. However, their lives also differ in many other ways that also influence their cognitive development. It is primarily children from disadvantaged families who watch the most television, so it’s hard to tell what is causing their lagging intellectual performance: the television or the other social disadvantages.
Gentzkow and Shapiro realized that the only way to separate these effects was to compare groups of children whose access to TV was determined by factors other than social advantages. Fortunately, when TV was first introduced in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s, not all areas got reception at the same time. Within a decade, about 80 percent of all households acquired a set, but some regions much earlier than others. For example, TV became available in Albany, New York in 1945, but in Denver only in 1953. In 1964, a huge national survey of school children took place, providing data for the so-called Coleman Report on schools. Recently Gentzkow and Shapiro were able to re-analyze those tests to answer questions about the effects of the “boob tube” on kids. They reasoned that if it harms children’s intellect, then the children in Albany should have been intellectually retarded in 1964 in comparison to the children in Denver.
But they weren’t. In fact, in reading, and general knowledge of, say, geography, science, and current events, the kids who had grown up with television scored higher by the equivalent to 25 points on the verbal SAT. If anything, TV had made those kids smarter.
This new information is compatible with the argument advanced last year by Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You. Johnson notes (as indeed I had also observed in my own book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy, which was not yet published at the time) that intelligence has been increasing all around the world as television becomes widespread. The average is increasing by about three points per decade (though the test designers keep raising the bar, so as to keep it set at 100). However, nobody had offered proof that this was the result of exposure to TV until Gentzkow and Shapiro carried out their own research.
These finding are not inconsistent with the possibility that there are other negative effects of television on children. For example, the kids may be getting smarter but also unhealthier because they exercise less and eat highly advertised junk food. Or they may be getting smarter but morally weaker because they watch violence or other anti-social behavior on the screen and imitate it in real life. I don’t have conclusive empirical evidence about these effects, but I want to point out that they are logically possible. In fact, it’s a safe guess that there are both negative and positive effects and that research is needed to refine the production of television so as to increase its benefits and decrease its harms.
By far the leader in the improvement of television quality for children is Sesame Workshop, an organization that, for 36 years, has devoted itself to using mass media for reaching and teaching young children, their families, and their caregivers what they need to know in the modern world. Sesame Workshop is an educational organization that claims to be the largest informal educator in the world. Their programs appear in over a hundred countries. Besides syndicating their American television programs, they co-produce 22 local shows throughout the world, including in Mexico, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Bangladesh, Russia, South Africa, Egypt, India, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
Sesame Street does not merely teach kids the alphabet and numeracy but sometimes addresses social issues as well. For example, the producers realized that children in South Africa needed to learn about HIV, though the topic was so taboo that most families never mentioned it. They chose a little orphan girl who had asymptomatic AIDS and made her into their “poster child.” There were scenes, for example, in which Kami talked about being lonely because other children wouldn’t play with her, fearing that they might catch her disease through casual contact. This story made quite an impact. Then Sesame Street created a show called “Talk to Me,” which taught parents how to discuss sensitive issues with their children instead of avoiding touchy subjects all the time.
After the tragedy of 911, many children felt anxious and sensed the prevailing attitude in America – especially the increasing intolerance. Sesame Street invented a story in which Big Bird has a pen pal, a seagull named Gulliver who comes for a visit. Unfortunately Gulliver is bigoted. He refuses to play with Big Bird’s best friend, Mr. Aloysius Snuffleupagus simply because he is not a bird. Big Bird, for his part, defends his friend and announces he won’t play with Gulliver unless he adopts a more inclusive attitude. It works. Follow-up research showed that children had grasped the message about tolerance.
Jeffrey Skoll, the founder of Participant Productions , has been involved in the production of a movie about Sesame Street that is to be released shortly. It’s a feature-length documentary that addresses the issues involved in producing shows for small children that foster social change. Who would have guessed that fictional characters played by muppets could change the world? But we could have guessed this much: that it all depends on what they have to tell the children.