Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blue's Clues: Bring It On?

by Tom Bozzo

Via Mark Thoma, new research suggests that boomers who watched lots of TV didn't have lower test scores or materially worse labor market outcomes.

I'd be more convinced if the authors had done some research on Generations X and/or Y as well. The last forty to fifty years have seen some qualitative change in television, after all, and whereas the adults of the fifties and sixties might not have had an Arrested Development to be murdered by careless Fox programmers, children didn't have to watch Action Figure Man: The How To Buy Action Figure Man episode, either. I'd also be curious to see how the quantity of viewing has varied by generation.

More: One of the paper's more freakonomic results, not mentioned in the abstract, is that the effects of watching TV differ based on the extent to which the subjects parents read to them as children. Specifically, TV watching has a larger positive effect for children who aren't read to; the effect is negative (if small and insignificant) for children with more exposure to books.

I think a reasonable explanation can be concocted. Consider the annoying e|i bug. It might take a PhD in marketing to find the educational content in some programs so labeled, but the content rationalizations may actually have some substance if the alternative is a media void: Even "Three's Company" (or, given the time period covered by the study, "Gunsmoke") "teaches" story comprehension. On the other hand, if kids who could be reading books (or having books read to them), get some slightly better-quality time crowded out by TV. At least, given suitable choice of content, that turns out to be not so bad.
Honestly, I don't think you could do a meaningful study on Generation Y without considering the content of the television being watched. I'd toss my TV right out the window if I didn't think that children who watch Sesame Street have very different outcomes than children who watch HBO at will.
I watched so much TV as a kid that I had the schedules of the 4 channels we received memorized. I can't say I turned out badly, but I don't have a great attention span. Can I blame that on TV? I can't. At some point, you have to accept your faults. I probably would have had a short attention span if I had grown up on a deserted island with no TV. It's hardwired. Is TV bad? Well, there is a lot more TV out there today then there was back then. I now spend a lot of time listening to it, not watching it. IMO, TV is not the enemy. You are what you are, and you work with what you have.
PS: As I noted in an edit of the original post, I'm curious about the quantity as well as the quality of TV, too. Despite our nonrandom sample (overrepresenting upper-middle class families with stay-at-home parents), even we know people who put TVs in their preschoolers' rooms.

Sara: I basically agree. My brother and I had a steady, if not totally unmetered, school-age diet of televised junk food when we were growing up -- Tom & Jerry and Gilligan's Island weekday afternoons; Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Abbott & Costello, and Dr. Shock on the weekends -- and we turned out OK, too. (The main thing I miss *is* the Saturday afternoon presentation of SF/horror movie classics on the old Philadelphia UHF stations.) However, the study's emphasis is preschool viewing, where parents in principle control the TV.
So the premise is that my Channel 17 Wee Willie Weber/Ruff and Ready/Kimba/Prince Planet (yes, Hanna-Barbera and 1960s anime--no wonder I think the world is flat and everyone has large eyes) days were more warping than the endless TOS/Gilligan reruns, with the occasional Harry O or Longstreet thrown in?

I dunno. That seems more a misplaced premise based on having more data without a knowledge context (i.e., videotaping the pre-K set and drawing anthropomorphic conclusions) than a viable hypothesis. Pre-grade school children have more free time than school-attending ones, so two hours at age three is not the same allocation of available time as two hours at fifteen.
It's not so much that I have a premise that fifties or sixties TV is more or less warping than eighties or nineties TV, so much as that Gentzkow and Shapiro haven't shown that it isn't. And forty years is long enough in electronic entertainment time that more data would be needed to establish that they'd discovered a new law of social science.
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