Three cheers for Big Bird

25th March, 2006

Dear Economist,
My wife and I can’t agree about how much television to let our sons (aged four and two) watch. She is more tolerant of TV, perhaps because she spends more time looking after them and needs a rest. How can we break the deadlock?
— Paul Mitchell, Wendover, Bucks

Dear Mr Mitchell,

I am not sure that you truly disagree here. You and your wife both wish your children to excel at school. Your wife wants some quiet time, and your sons want to watch the box. There is only a problem if these requirements are mutually exclusive.

They do not seem to be. A new working paper by economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of Chicago University looks at the effect of television on children’s test scores and future careers – and finds an effect that is small and positive. For children whose parents do not speak English the effect is stronger.

Previous studies confused the effects of television with the family circumstances that encourage children to watch it. I am willing to bet that the children of fathers with string vests also tend to do poorly at school, but the string vests are not to blame.

Gentzkow and Shapiro look at the spread of television across the US. New York had television in 1940, but Denver had to wait until 1952. Wherever television was available, children would watch for three or so hours a day – with little educational programming and plenty of commercials. So if television is bad for you, the brains of young New Yorkers should have rotted earlier than those of young Denverites. They did not.

Forget your prejudices and settle down for an educational day with Big Bird. You might learn something.

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