Since the 1950’s, teachers and parents have expressed concern over the influence of television on children. At the center of the controversy is the media’s effect on reading achievement. Opponents condemn the media for its detrimental effect on developing reading skills, while proponents claim that some television viewing, particularly of educational programs, can minimize differences between advantaged and disadvantaged children before they enter school.
Dutch researchers, Johannes W.J. Beentjes and Tom H.A. Van der Voort, analyzed a large body of research studies which have been carried out worldwide (though mostly in the U.S.) in the last 30 years. Although data varies greatly, by far the greater proportion of results supports the view that television, in some circumstances, has an inhibiting effect on reading achievement.
Among inhibiting effects, perhaps the most critical is the charge that television viewing displaces more valuable activities. It has also been claimed that since programming preprocesses information, T.V. offers essentially a passive experience, fosters mental laziness and generally does little to encourage students to think for themselves.
It has also been hypothesized that television actually lowers the attention span of children, undermining the patience needed for more cognitively demanding tasks. Under some circumstances, though, television appears to have a moderately beneficial effect. Educational programs provide information and also teach some skills to the very young and disadvantaged. Beentjes and Van der Voort report that there is no conclusive evidence that television watching consistently results in any of these effects.
No control group available
The most significant problem with research into T.V.’s impact on children is the non-existence of a control group; there are no comparable populations of children which are not exposed to television. Depriving a group of children of television temporarily, for purposes of research, is ineffective since this does not eliminate the effect T.V. has already had.
Beentjes and Van der Voort state that data collection, specifically the method by which children report on the amount of television they watch, is crude and over the years has not significantly improved (though some research indicates that by 10 years of age, children are reasonably accurate in their estimates). As a result, efforts to draw conclusions about the effects of T.V. are hampered by questionable data.
Multivariate analysis needed to show complex relationship
Beentjes and Van der Voort conclude that T.V.’s impact on children is complex and variable. Factors, such as the amount of time spent watching T.V. each day, as well as the type of programs watched, affect results, as do the socio-economic status of the family and the intelllectual ability of the child.
Multivariate studies – those which control for several factors at once – are necessary to reveal the consistent but complex effects that T.V. has on reading achievement. On the whole, simple (bivariate) studies were unable to disclose this complex relationship.
Negative effects more pronounced for intelligent, advantaged children
Beentjes and Van der Voort conclude that despite problems of methodology, the research data, as a whole, reveals that television does not affect reading. The results of multivariate studies indicate that excessive television viewing appears to consistently inhibit reading achievement.
Highly intelligent children and those from educationally advantaged homes are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of excessive television viewing. It is hypothesized that for these children, T.V. does in fact displace more cognitively beneficial activities. Three hours of T.V. watching a day appears to be too much for most children, while a moderate amount of viewing can have a mildly positive impact on the very young and less advantaged child.
“Television’s Impact on Children’s Reading Skills: A Review of Research” Reading Research Quarterly Fall 1988, Volume 23 Number 4 pp. 389.
Published in ERN January/February 1989 Volume 2 Number 1.