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Key Beliefs About TV's Ill Effects Remain Unproven, Study Finds

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Many commonly held beliefs about television's impact on children--including its deleterious effect on reading, homework, and attention span--are either wrong or are unsupported by research, according to a new federally funded study.

But the University of Massachusetts at Amherst scholars who prepared the analysis say research on the medium's influence on cognitive development continues to be "scarce," and in some important areas is totally lacking.

"It is difficult to conclude that television has no major effects," write the psychologists Daniel R. Anderson and Patricia A. Collins, in a new working paper published by the U.S. Education Department.

But sporadic funding, methodological difficulties, and other obstacles, they say, have made scientifically gauging those effects an elusive quest.

"Because children spend so much time with television, it would appear that TV must have a major impact on schooling," the authors write. "If it does, the nature of that impact has yet to be determined."

They call for more long-term studies of the medium's impact on learning, starting with preschool children who have not established a strong habit of television-viewing.

The report, which represents a distillation of all relevant studies to date, questions several common assertions by critics of the medium: That it has a "mesmerizing" effect on children;

That it displaces valuable cognitive activities, such as homework or reading;

That its rapid visual pace leads to shortened attention spans;

That it lessens creativity and imagination and makes children "cognitively passive," and

That it lowers reading achievement.

Many people believe that these assertions stem from a large body of scientific research, the authors say.

"Unfortunately, however, a scientific approach has informed little of the discourse on the cognitive influence of television," they say.

Findings of Analysis

Among the findings from their review of the literature are these:

Children watch large amounts of television--but probably not as much as widely believed, because overestimates are common.

There is no evidence that television has a "mesmerizing" effect on children's attention caused by color, movement, or visual changes.

There is little evidence that television-viewing displaces valuable cognitive activities, such as reading.

No evidence suggests that homework done while watching TV is of lower quality than homework done in silence.

The assertion that television-viewing shortens children's attention span is difficult to test, but some research shows that TV may actually increase attention-focusing capabilities.

Some "weak" evidence suggests that the availability of television reduces reading achievement, but that appears to occur only temporarily during the early elementary-school years. Television's overall influence on reading appears to be minimal in relation to other factors, such as family encouragement of reading.

For their analysis, Mr. Anderson and Ms. Collins reviewed all relevant studies that could be located through computer searches of bibliographical databases and other sources. The task was made more difficult, they say, by the fact that research on television and education is done in a wide variety of disciplines.

In commenting on the sparseness of the research base, they note that only a few research groups have shown a consistent interest in the field.

"It's very difficult to develop a program of research around this issue," Mr. Anderson said in an interview.

Friend or Foe of Learning?

Because of television's pervasive influence, its impact on fundamental aspects of learning is an issue that touches virtually everyone. Yet more than 30 years after the medium gained its foothold in the American home, educators, psychologists, scholars, and popular critics are still debating whether it is friend or foe of educational development.

On the subject of homework, for example, critics have charged that television-viewing displaces time4spent on schoolwork, and that work done while watching television--a more and more common practice--is of lesser quality than that done in solitude.

But several studies, according to the report, have shown that television-viewing has primarily displaced other entertainment activities--such as listening to the radio, going to the movies, or reading comic books--and not homework.

While some studies show that the time American students spend on homework has declined as the hours spent watching television have increased, the authors say it is hard to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Changes in the school curriculum--with less homework being assigned--may be the chief culprit, they argue.

Reading and Attention

The two researchers say that the charge that television shortens children's attention span is the single most frequent cognitively-related criticism leveled at the medium.

But attention span, they say, has been abandoned as a concept in research on cognitive development, replaced by the related idea of "task perseverance."

One study they reviewed tested the theory that television's rapid pacing affected children's level of attention and activity. In that study, one group of 5-year-olds was shown a rapidly-paced series of segments from the "Sesame Street" television show, while another was shown slow-paced segments.

When the children were later given tests gauging their perseverance in solving puzzles, the results showed no differences between the two groups.

From this and other studies, the authors conclude that the evidence indicates that television may have some influence on task perseverance and impulsivity. But the influence, they note, is seen as positive in some studies and negative in others. And it can vary with program content.

There has been much more research--and more studies reporting a negative impact--in the area of reading achievement and television, the researchers say.

But all told, the evidence is not very impressive, they add.

"There may be a slight negative effect of heavy television-viewing on reading achievement, with some indication that this effect may occur at the earliest stages of learning to read," they write. But "recent studies suggest that any relationship between TV and reading is probably trivial relative to factors such as time spent reading books and family attitudes toward reading."

The Message, Not the Medium

The conclusions of Mr. Anderson and Ms. Collins are consistent with those reached in 1981 in a similar research overview by Robert Hornik of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications.

Mr. Hornik found that research showed a negative association between television-viewing and reading skills, but that there was little or no evidence to show that television displaced valuable cognitive activities like reading, or that it produced in children an intolerance for the pace of schooling.

"In general, the evidence for out-of-school TV-watching having an effect on in-school performance is8quite weak," Mr. Hornik said last week in an interview.

Mr. Anderson said the main conclusion he drew from his current review of research literature was that television is "an active teacher and children actively learn information from television."

"Much of the distress among parents should be directed at what the children are learning from TV," he said. "Instead, so much concern has been addressed toward the nature of the medium. We are much more concened about the message than the medium."

'Difficult To Study'

Some critics contend, however, that certain conclusions about the negative influence of television can be reached without the results of mounds of academic research.

Neil Postman, an author and professor of communications at New York University, has written that educators should see television as an alternative curriculum that is counterproductive to what they are trying to do in the classroom.

Mr. Postman and others have expressed doubt that traditional research methods can ever provide clear evidence of the impact of television-viewing on cognitive development, but they feel that common-sense conclusions can be drawn.

"It is very difficult to imagine a convincing analysis which will unquestionably associate TV-watching with school performance," agreed Mr. Hornik. "It is a very difficult problem to study, partly because there is not anybody who isn't watching any television. You can't see any effects anymore of television versus no television in the United States."

"But that doesn't mean we can't be doing better than we are doing," he added.

'Unique' Research Problems

In their study, Mr. Anderson and Ms. Collins offer a critique of past research and suggestions for future analysis.

"There has been almost no research on a number of major issues," they write, "including the influence of entertainment television on students' academically relevant knowledge." And, they add, what is known suggests some possible negative effects--"for example on listeningskills"--that have not yet been explored in research.

The researchers complain that money for such research--both from the government and from private foundations--has been sporadic. And they note that the very nature of the reasearch presents "unique" methodological difficulties.

In addition to the lack of adequate control groups, researchers face obstacles in getting accurate accounts of television-viewing time, they say.

The authors call for more carefully documented longitudinal studies, starting in the years before children enter school and continuing well into elementary school.

Such studies, they stress, must also include assessments of the intellectual environment provided by the family, "including attitudes toward schooling, reading, and TV- viewing."

They also call for more experimental research approaches, such as manipulating the amount of homework assigned or the television-viewing allowed, to determine the effects of the medium on homework.

According to Mr. Anderson, the new study has been circulated in the field and is beginning to have an impact within the relatively small group of scholars devoted to research on television and education.

He was heartened, he said, to learn of a planned, longitudinal study of the impact of "Sesame Street" on children. That study, undertaken by researchers at the University of Kansas, was announced recently in connection with the trend-setting public-televison show's 20th anniversary.

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