The Television and Learning Debate

By Katie Ash — September 08, 2008 1 min read
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A few days ago, I ran across this article in the Boston Globe about the importance of daydreaming to creativity and how television has significantly cut into that time. After observing a group of children for several months, Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, concluded that whenever children got bored, they immediately turned to the television for entertainment.

The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored - at least, when a television was nearby - they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. "The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere," Belton says. "But that's a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice."

The article is a unique take on a common refrain: TV is bad for kids. But according to this article in The Wall Street Journal, new research may undermine this common belief. Apparently because of complications from a wartime ban on television in the United States, between 1948 and 1952 not all American cities had access to television. Analyzing data from this period of time, two economists found some surprising results.

Adjusting for differences in household income, parents' educational background and other factors, children who lived in cities that gave them more exposure to television in early childhood performed better on the tests than those with less exposure. The economists found that television was especially positive for children in households where English wasn't the primary language and parents' education level was lower.

The article also talks about other ways television has had a positive impact--including helping non-native speakers learn languages, helping rural Indian women become more independent, and lowering Brazil’s fertility rate.

Television is obviously a powerful tool to keep people connected to society and the world. But whether it helps kids learn or not, there are other factors to consider when weighing the benefits and drawbacks of TV-watching--like childhood obesity, for example. As the researchers in the Wall Street Journal article note, determining what effect television has on children is difficult to ascertain, but I think both articles offer important perspectives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.