Less reading and more watching

4 min read

Other than sleeping and working, Americans are more likely to watch television than engage in any other activity.

A wave of new social science research shows that the quality of shows can influence us in important ways, shaping our thinking and political preferences, even affecting our cognitive ability.

In this so-called golden age of television, some critics have pointed out that the best of the form is equivalent to the most enriching novels. And high-quality programming for children can be educational. But the latest evidence also suggests there can be negative consequences to our abundant watching, particularly when the shows are mostly entertainment.

The harm seems to come not so much from the content itself dramaqu.name but from the fact that it replaces more enlightening ways of spending time.

Cognitive ability is a complex characteristic that emerges from interactions between biological dispositions, nutrition and health, parenting behaviors, formal and informal educational opportunities, and culture.

Studying the connection between intelligence and television consumption is far from straightforward, but researchers have developed compelling ways to isolate the effects of television.

Some of the best research has been done on the television program “Sesame Street.” The show, which began in 1969, was meant to develop early literacy, numeracy and emotional skills for children of preschool age. A detailed analysis of the show’s content in its first and second years reveals that 80 percent of the program was dedicated to those goals, with the rest meant to entertain.

Researchers randomly assigned groups of low-income children age 3 to 5 into an experimental group and a control group. In the experimental group, parents were given access to the show if they lacked it and encouraged in person once a month to have their children watch the show.

The TV Signal

A standard TV camera changes the pictures into an electric signal called the video signal. The video signal carries the pictures in the form of tiny dots called pixels. The camera’s microphone changes the sound into another electric signal, called the audio signal. The video and audio signals together form the TV signal.

Digital TV, or DTV, is a newer way of handling TV signals. A digital TV signal carries pictures and sound as a number code, like a computer does. A digital signal can carry more information than a standard signal can, which creates better pictures and sound. High definition TV, or HDTV, is a high-quality form of digital TV.

In Norway, and a handful of other developed countries, average I.Q. scores have declined slightly in recent years, after rising for many decades. This is known as the negative Flynn effect, a variation of the more famous Flynn effect, which is named after the psychologist who first published comprehensive evidence of I.Q. gains over time. Among native Norwegian men taking an exam at age 18 for military conscription, those born in 1974 scored two I.Q. points higher than those born in 1987.

In an academic article published this year, the Norwegian economist Oystein Hernaes and his co-authors attributed some of this decline in I.Q. scores to access to cable television, which also coincided with a sharp decline in reading. After the introduction of cable in 1981, Norwegian teenagers and young adults drastically cut back on daily time spent reading from 1980 to 2000, and increased their time watching TV. Moreover, relative to public television, cable television had far less educational content and was focused on entertainment and advertisements.

To estimate the effect of cable television on I.Q. scores, the Norwegian scholars analyzed data on the introduction of cable network infrastructure by municipality. They calculated years of exposure to cable by considering the age of eventual test takers when cable became available in their municipality. They controlled for any potential geographic bias by comparing siblings with greater or less exposure to cable television based on their age when cable infrastructure was put in.

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