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Too much TV in childhood is bad for education

Too much TV in childhood is bad for education: Otago study

No matter what your intelligence or social background, watching a lot of television during childhood means you are a lot less likely to have a degree by your mid-twenties, according to new University of Otago research.

While some previous studies have investigated links between television viewing and school performance, the new study appearing in the international journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to have followed a group of children into adulthood.

The study has followed 1037 people born in Dunedin in 1972-73. Every two years between the ages of 5 and 15, they were asked how much television they watched. The researchers found that those who watched the most television during these years had earned fewer qualifications by the time that they were age 26.

“We found that the more television the child had watched, the more likely they were to leave school without any qualifications. Those who watched little television had the best chance of going on to university and earning a degree,” says Dr Bob Hancox, Deputy Director of the Dunedin Research Unit.

The researchers found that the educational effects of television viewing could not be explained by intelligence or socio-economic factors. “It’s not just that children with little natural ability decided to watch more television. Children of all levels of intelligence did worse if they watched a lot of television. Similarly, the association between watching television poor achievement was not because heavy television viewers had poor socio-economic backgrounds.

“An interesting finding was that although teenage viewing was strongly linked to leaving school without any qualifications, it was earlier childhood viewing that had the greatest impact on getting a degree. This suggests that excessive television in younger children has a long-lasting adverse effect on educational performance,” Dr Hancox says.

Other studies have had conflicting findings on the association between television viewing and education. While some have suggested that there may be a harmful effect, other studies have suggested that some television programmes might improve learning. Few of these studies have been able to adjust for intelligence and social factors, and none have followed a group of children into adulthood, he says.

“These findings suggest that reducing television viewing could improve the education of New Zealand children. Parents, communities and society should work together to reduce children’s viewing hours. Programmers might give some thought to the low educational value of most children’s programmes,” says Dr Hancox.

The study, titled “Association of television viewing during childhood with poor educational achievement” was authored by Dr Robert Hancox, Mr Barry Milne and Associate Professor Richie Poulton of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit and is published in this month’s issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit is supported by the New Zealand Health Research Council.

Notes to the Editor:

POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS OF FINDINGS: Educational qualifications are a major determinant of a person’s employment opportunities, social standing and health and well-being. Improving educational attainment is a major focus of social policy and the government’s aim to build a “knowledge economy”. However, this goal may be undone by adverse effects of television. In some countries, children spend more time watching television than they do in school. Our data indicate that this is also true in New Zealand.

Television may lead to poor educational achievement through several ways:

1. Television may directly impact on school performance by displacing homework and revision.

2. Watching television may take up time that would have otherwise been spent in more educational pursuits, for example imaginative play and reading.

3. Television has been linked to attention and behaviour problems in young children which may impact on classroom performance.

LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY: Only seven per cent of children watched less than one hour of television a day. These earned the most qualifications, but there were too few to be certain whether reducing television to less than one hour a day would be better than keeping below the two hour limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

These children grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time New Zealand had only two television channels and, unlike today, most homes had only one television set. Video recorders were only introduced towards the end of this period, computers and games consoles were rare, and the internet had not been heard of. The opportunities for “screen-time” are much higher for children today.

OTHER ISSUES: A number of organisations including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics have expressed concern about the impact of television and other media on children. Despite these concerns, children continue to be heavy consumers of television. This present study points to a need for greater awareness of the adverse effects of these media.

A report from the Dunedin Study last year also found that children who watched a lot of television grew up to be less healthy adults (Lancet 2004; 364:257-62).

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