Did you know that simply watching TV causes harm to children? Well, that’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics would have you believe. And yet, here we are in the sixth decade since TV became popular, and we have not yet seen the end of the world based upon multiple generations that grew up with television as a mainstay.
The latest issue of Pediatrics has two studies — and a bonus editorial! — that suggests television viewing by children is associated with greater criminality and antisocial personality, and that a child’s behavior can be modified by simply changing what they’re watching.
Pediatrics is the mouthpiece for the American Academy of Pediatrics. And while it’s ostensibly an objective, scientific journal, it continually publishes weak research — especially on the effects of TV and children.
Let’s check out the latest…
The first study (Robertson, et al., 2013) followed 1,037 New Zealand children over the course of their early lives, from ages 5 to 26. Parents were asked how much time their children spent watching TV, until age 13, when the children themselves were asked directly. Then they looked at some other factors — like criminal convictions, antisocial personality disorder, IQ, and the socio-economic status of the families. Parental control was also measured twice — at ages 7 and 9 — by asking the mom about what kinds of rules and procedures were used to run family life.
From this data, the researchers found that those with more criminal convictions or with antisocial personality traits watched significantly more TV as children.
But here’s all the things the researchers did not measure:
- Social peer network and social support
- Relationships and quality of relationships with friends
- Existence of other mental disorders (because the researchers only focused on antisocial personality disorder)
- Parental marital status
- Parental relationship quality
- Parental role modeling behavior
- History of criminal convictions within the immediate family
- Limited understanding of family dynamics from just two data points, and just from the perspective of the mother
- Religion and moral upbringing
- Amount of time spent in creative play
- Amount of time attending or participating in sports
- And so on…
As you can see, the list of alternative explanations for this correlational relationship is voluminous. Without controlling for as many variables as possible in a child’s environment, there is no reasonable way you can isolate a single variable. And without measuring the kinds of things in the list above (among others), you’d have no way to determine if one of those might provide a more reasonable — or at least alternative — explanation.
While two variables can often be associated with one another, an association rarely tells you much. Especially in this case, where the researchers never bothered to ask or measure what type of TV programs the children actually watched. For all we know, they could’ve all been heavier viewers of The Waltons. It seems incomprehensible that a study that purports to study the importance of TV watching’s effects on children that such an oversight could’ve been made.1
Only buried at the end of the study do you find this acknowledgment:
As with any observational research, we cannot prove that television viewing causes antisocial behavior, but the study has a number of features that enable us to make causal inferences. […]
[It] is also possible that other unmeasured factors associated with the milieu in which television viewing occurs may explain the observed relationship.
Yes, of course it may. Which means you can’t say anything about causation. So why do they then contradict themselves in the abstract of the study?
The findings are consistent with a causal association and support the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children should watch no more than 1 to 2 hours of television each day.
And people wonder why social scientists often get a bad name in science?
That’s Okay, You Can Watch This on TV Instead
But hey, maybe it does matter what your child actually watches on TV. Let’s look at study 2 (Christakis, et al., 2013):
We devised a media diet intervention wherein parents were assisted in substituting high quality prosocial and educational programming for aggression-laden programming without trying to reduce total screen time. We conducted a randomized controlled trial of 565 parents of preschool-aged children ages 3 to 5 years recruited from community pediatric practices. Outcomes were derived from the Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation at 6 and 12 months.
The researchers found about a 2 point difference in the Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation (SCBE) scale between the two groups. This was a statistically significant difference (in their regression analysis), according to the researchers.
However, it was a meaningless difference in the real world. The SCBE is a scale scored from 1 to 6 on 30 questions, resulting in a possible overall score of 180.
After 6 months, the control group scored a 106.38 versus a 108.36 of the intervention group. That’s an average change of just two of the 30 questions changing just one point in the positive direction. (A similar point difference was seen at the 1 year followup mark.)2
Their original hypothesis was to find a significant change in all the subscales and the overall score of the SCBE — that’s four scales:
We hypothesized that the intervention would increase the overall score and each of the 3 subscale scores.
After one year, all they found was a statistically significant change in one subscale score and the overall score. So were the researchers cautiously optimistic in their findings’ discussion, considering the tiny increases they found in the intervention group?
We demonstrated that an intervention to modify the viewing habits of preschool-aged children can significantly enhance their overall social and emotional competence and that low-income boys may derive the greatest benefit. [Emphasis added.]
Not, “we found support for…” or “on one single measure of social and emotional competence…”
The apparently lack of objectivity displayed here is, in my opinion, simply astounding.
Should your child spend 5 hours a day in front of the TV? In general, probably not. Nor should they spend 5 hours a day playing sports, a video game, or eating bananas. This is called “common sense,” and no amount of psychological research — good or bad — can infuse it into parents who don’t care how they raise their children. Why researchers insist on pursuing this questionable line of inquiry is beyond me.3
Christaskis, D.A., et al. (2013). Modifying Media Content for Preschool Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-1493
Robertson, L.A., McAnally, H.M. & Hancox, R.J. (2013). Childhood and Adolescent Television Viewing and Antisocial Behavior in
Early Adulthood. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-158
- Worse yet, how does a study like this get accepted for publication in a journal such as Pediatrics when it has so many obvious methodological flaws? [↩]
- And for reasons that aren’t clear, the researchers failed to report the actual mean subscale scores on this measure — something commonplace when reporting on the SCBE in the research. [↩]
- It’s only a matter of time before we see similar studies published about the Internet. [↩]