The Rube Tube
Anti-TV activist Robert Kesten thinks the effects of TV around the world are more pernicious than Charles Kenny would have you believe.
Charles Kenny's article on the positive power of television ("Revolution in a Box," November 2009) seems to assume that the world today resembles 1950s and '60s America. At that time there was, on average, one television per household in the United States, which families watched together for short periods of time. Kenny mentions a study done by researchers at the University of Chicago that found young people who watched I Love Lucy in the '50s turned out to be good students. But he did not quote the same team's study showing that TV viewers today are less likely to vote or be engaged in their communities. He did not look at the Montefiore Hospital study that showed that students who watch more than three hours of television per day saw a dramatic decrease in grades.
Charles Kenny’s article on the positive power of television ("Revolution in a Box," November 2009) seems to assume that the world today resembles 1950s and ’60s America. At that time there was, on average, one television per household in the United States, which families watched together for short periods of time. Kenny mentions a study done by researchers at the University of Chicago that found young people who watched I Love Lucy in the ’50s turned out to be good students. But he did not quote the same team’s study showing that TV viewers today are less likely to vote or be engaged in their communities. He did not look at the Montefiore Hospital study that showed that students who watch more than three hours of television per day saw a dramatic decrease in grades.
Kenny also missed the Chinese government report stating that television and computer time has taken China from the leanest country on Earth to one where one in five people are overweight or obese. India’s government reports that, thanks to television, the country has one of the fastest-growing diabetes crises in the world.
Since the 1960s, study after study has demonstrated a direct link between aggressive behavior and screen time (content can make things worse, but time is the major factor). There is very little argument on this, except from researchers who work for the entertainment industry.
It is no wonder that most industrialized countries limit and/or ban programming and advertising directed at young people. Kenny is correct to assume that TV can do some good, when watched sparingly, but he is very wrong when he sees it as a panacea for the world’s problems.
Charles Kenny replies:
I agree with Robert Kesten that TV isn’t a panacea. And surely you can have too much of a good thing — people watching so much TV they hardly get off the couch are wasting their lives. Nonetheless, I take issue with some of his assertions.
The Montefiore study that Kesten cites shows that kids who report getting worse grades also report watching more than three hours of TV on a school night. But the authors are careful to call this an "association" rather than proof of a causal relationship, noting that it might be students who do poorly at school end up watching more TV.
I chose the studies I cite in the article because they are better designed to probe for causal relationships. These studies look at the same communities over time as the TV signal expands across them. They suggest that television exposure is related to improved educational outcomes, lower fertility, and gender equality.
The difference between correlation and causation might also be an issue with Kesten’s claims about the growing global obesity epidemic. In the Unites States, TV sets spread from less than 5 percent to about 90 percent of households during the late 1940s and early 1950s, well before the obesity epidemic began.
Kesten also suggests that the more recent spread of television in China is responsible for growing obesity in that country. Perhaps it played a part, but surely the dramatic growth in incomes, urbanization, expansion of service-industry employment, spreading car ownership, the considerable increase in calorie intake, and the reach of fast food have played larger roles.
Kesten’s broader point is well taken. We should be careful what our children watch. TV is no substitute for friends and shouldn’t crowd out exercise or homework. Still, the world today actually does look like the United States in the 1950s and ’60s in terms of the number of televisions per household around the globe. And I’d argue, overall, that is good news.
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating
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