See, Mom, It Won't Rot My Brain


Slate reports on a new study that tries to factor out all the confounding variables that plague most studies of how TV watching affects kids by looking to the heady early days of television, as the idiot box was spreading across the country at differential rates. Turns out maybe "idiot box" is a misnomer after all.

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  1. I don’t know how many of you have read “Freakanomics,” but one of the things the author noted was that lots of TV every day as a child does NOT correlate with lower test scores or academic aptitude. But then, neither does reading to your child every day. And yet, having lots of books in the home DOES correlate, even when they are not read to the child. Some of the stuff does not seem to make sense, yet he has the data to back it up.

  2. It makes sense if there’s a strong genetic component, and bright parents who read alot pass on those genes to the kids, even if they fail to read to them.

  3. In my opinion a study that indicates that, in the 1950?s, living in a city were TV signals were broadcast did not affect your academic performance doesn?t exactly invalidate all the modern research that suggests that parking a kid in front of the set for hours a day isn?t a bad idea.

  4. The Slate article points out that when you try to correlate success with tv watching you’re really correlating success with the economic level of the parents. The whole bus vs. mercedes thing.

    What I wonder is how this played out in the early years of television, and if that affects the results they find: in 2005 *everyone* can afford a TV. In 1955, presumably they were a luxury item, like most new-ish technologies. Could this distort the results?

    Also, TV in the 50s was very different from TV now. The TV-as-ADHD-virus crowd would say modern editing makes it worse, while the “Everything Bad is Good For You” crowd would probably say it makes it better. Regardless, we’re not comparing apples to apples here.

  5. A few comments:

    a.) TV may not rot your brain, but it certainly rots your body. Watching tv uses less energy than sleeping (that’s hyperbolic, obviously).

    b.) not all TV is created equal – letting your kid watch the Discovery Channel, or sports, or Bob the Builder is very different from watching Jerry Springer, the evening news, or MTV.

    c.) context is everything – Kill Bill, the Thin Red Line, and Hostile are all violent movies, but one of these would be a positive influence on a teenager, one would be mildly entertaining and harmless and the other would be a waste of time at best…

  6. Anybody who has ever let the kids watch Cartoon Network knows that TV rots your brain. And if you switch to Disney it’s all PC propaganda BS.

    There is no question that TV is the opiate of the people but, like opium, it isn’t entirely without merit.

    Mike is right about apples and apples. 1950’s kids watched two or three hours of cartoons on Saturday morning. 1960’s kids did the same plus they had Felix the Cat and Bullwinkle after school. It has steadily ratcheted up from thence to now where children’s TV is constant on a multitude of channels.

    But then again, I may have a bias, our house is one of the few in modern America where the big screen TV isn’t blaring in the background 24/7 in direct competition with the drone from the stove top TV in the kitchen. What is up with that, anyway?

  7. TV may not rot your brain, but it certainly rots your body. Watching tv uses less energy than sleeping

    I often combine the two, thus using twice the energy.

  8. And yet, having lots of books in the home DOES correlate, even when they are not read to the child.

    That’s because a house with lots of books in it also has at least one adult who reads a lot, and children model their behavior on their parents. Having your kid see you reading is more likely to turn the little rug rat into a reader than reading to him/her.

  9. Lemur,

    I am not sure about your comment that context is everything is correct. Having been a teacher for 15 years the only thing I can say about learning, is that no one, can tell you with any certainty how people learn. Some might be able to tell you how THEY learn, but they cannot tell you how their own child learns nor what they will learn given a certain imput.

    For example, a few years ago during the “explosion” of molestation, a group put out a childrens show designed to educate and warn young children about the dangers of molestation. The show won accolades from developmental psychologists and “child experts.” The cartoon, told the story of a family of bears in which one of the characters was touched inappropriately by another character. Ironically, or poetically you decide, when they asked the children who viewed the show what they learned the children responded something to the effect that molestation was a huge problem among bears. Thus, the children had made no transference of the material to themselves.

    The point I am trying to make is that with regards to kids or adults “good” TV or “Bad” TV. Educational or non-educational might be a red herring. We might think Dora is better Speed Racer, but the lesson YOUR kid will learn from Dora might be the polar opposite of what the writers intended.

    Specifically with regard to the “Thin Red Line” the movie was promoted as a powerful anti-war movie, yet while I found it good, it paled in comparison to “Gallipoli.”



  10. my understanding of the book’s point is that the presence of books is more symptom than cause. it was really a genetic phenomenon where the presence of books most likely indicates smart parents who will have smart kids. consequently lots of books correlates positively with smart kids. except the book wraps it up much more elegantly than i just did.

  11. R C Dean: There was a New Republic article a couple of weeks ago about boys and reading, which said exactly what you did. Unfortuneately the article isn’t on-line anymore, but the gist of it was that the sons of men who read for pleasure had higher reading test scores than the sons of men who never read anything. Now, some of this may be genetics, given that the non-readers probably are less intelligent than the readers are, but a good bit is due solely to the good example. I don’t remember if income was a factor, but job status was. Blue collar men hardly read at all, while white-collar types read lots. Apparently this isn’t anything new; the study included data from 1960. The blue-collar types then read even less than they did in the more recent study.

    One striking fact was that it didn’t matter if anyone read to the kid, it mattered that Dad read for his own entertainment. This supports the common sense observation that parental example matters a lot more than parental lectures.

  12. Gallipoli was not anti-war… it was anti-British (just like the Patriot and Braveheart – what do those movies have in common?).

    And the Thin Red Line was much more than an anti-war movie… it was brilliantly cast, directed, and filmed. Probably my favorite movie of all time.

    Primarily, though, my point wasn’t about the educational value of TV varying by context, but about the developmental impact varying by context. For instance, if you watch enough local news, you’ll become convinced the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, that crime is up, the environment is filthy, etc. It is a cynic generation machine. If you watch enough MTV, you’ll become convinced that human beings are debased, grotesque bonobos.

  13. Anybody who has ever let the kids watch Cartoon Network knows that TV rots your brain.

    Of course…what better reason is there to watch it?

  14. Early TV was dominated by channel switches that were perpetually making bad contact, and keeping you on your feet going back and forth to adjust it.

    The development of a decent channel switch was the major breakthrough that finally made couch potatos possible.

    Probably it impacted the space program, too.

  15. Lemur,

    I agree with your revised point about MTV and local news, or as we in Southern California used to call it ACTION NEWS, where no car chase goes uncovered. I am personally convinced that the local affiliate would cut away from the State of the Union Speech to cover a car chase.

    Finally, Thin Red Line was a good movie, but as far as war pics go, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket blows it away. The fact that Kubrick was able to make a war movie about Viet Nam and set it in a city is alone worth the price of admission.



  16. Ah, phooey! I’m going to go out on a limb and say that neither the amount nor the content of the TV kids watch has any effect on their performance whatsoever. Why? Because some of my smartest friends are just as able to argue the finer points of Star Blazers and Speed Racers as the rest of us. I always cringe when I hear coworkers bragging that they don’t let their kids watch TV. And not surprisingly, these are the same people who don’t let their kids eat meat, are rabid anti-smokers and are all-around ascetic bores.

  17. Why can’t they just compare test scores of kids that watch TV and don’t watch TV and simply hold household income constant. Shit, if they’e getting data on TV watching habits, it’s not that hard to get income data. The least they could do is do it based on median income of the zip code. It’s a rough estimate, but it better than this study.

    TV back then and TV now are completely different beasts and as was mentioned earlier, TV wasn’t as common (esp. among the poor) then as it is today.

    I’m not saying TV rots your brain, but this study is worthless.

  18. Rhywun,

    Anyone who says their kids don’t watch TV or eat junk food is lying, unless the family actually lives in backwoods Alaska. It is not possible to cook, clean, or do laundry while sharing a residence with a 2-year-old without Barney or Blues Clues. Well, if you intend to actually finish, that is.

    More seriously, I’ve always wondered some of these things is a proxy for some more serious pathology, like parents that fight all the time? My guess is that hugely excessive TV watching happens because parents aren’t particularly attentive, or things around the house are chaotic. I’m all in favor of strategic use of cartoons, but I don’t see how an elementary student in anything vaguely resembling function could rack up five hours of TV on weekdays. I don’t know whether these studies controlled for this kind of factor, although it seems like they don’t do a particularly good job of controlling for income. Also, “chaos” can exist at a level kids notice but below divorce court or restraining order level. I have a suspicion that there are other things going on in those families not discussed in the studies.

  19. “anything resembling a functional family . . ”

    Preview, always preview.

  20. Karen:

    You should check out the show “Nanny 911” – it might help you figure out how to do chores without drugging your kid on TV…

    (ironic advice, no?)

  21. Well of course. It’s obvious that watching four or five hours of TV must be what rots kids’ brains. It’s absolutely absurd to think that going to public school for eight hours a day could overcome such a gross disadvantage. There can’t be anything wrong with the government educational system. <Repeat as needed.>

  22. Watching TV does not rot your brain, but it does little for you except help you win trivia contests about old TV shows. Sit and stare at a screen for a few hours a day and you’ve memorized the lyrics to a theme song. Congratulations, you’re prepared for reTroactiVe.

    Anyone who says their kids don’t watch TV or eat junk food is lying, unless the family actually lives in backwoods Alaska.

    When I was a kid, my family did not own a television. Now you know why I’m such a freak.

  23. TV is very good at teaching language. It can be very valuable for immigrant children who otherwise would never hear standard English in the home. I think the Slate article even mentions that. So if you’re a parent who feels guilty about letting your kid watching TV – put on Univision, then at least the kid will absorb some Spanish along with the usual crap.

  24. I just had a conversation last night with my 8 year old concerning what happens to a timeline if someone goes back in time and changes the past.

    Came out of the blue at dinner. Seems he saw a cartoon about three time travelling kids.

    I guess it’s rotting his brain, but it sure made for a cool dinner conversation!

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