`Good' TV helps educate our children

August 08, 1999|By Beth Frerking

WASHINGTON -- Viewing quality educational television from a very young age has "surprisingly strong and positive effects on children," both in their readiness to learn and in academic performance later on, according to new research.

The findings challenge conventional wisdom, which contends that if TV doesn't harm children, it certainly doesn't help them. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced this past week that children under 2 should not be allowed to watch television at all.

But John C. Wright, who directs the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that by being extremely cautious consumers and program reviewers, parents can ensure that electronic media actually benefit their children.

Mr. Wright doesn't advocate that toddlers be plopped in front of television for hours at a time. But neither does he see the medium itself as some monolithic evil.

Mr. Wright and his colleagues have found that children who watch educational television are better prepared for school than those raised on a steady diet of network commercial situation comedies and action-adventure shows.

These children also carry an academic edge through high school, Mr. Wright reported here Tuesday at a parenting conference organized by the federal government's National Institutes of Health.

Stunted development

Children who only watched commercial entertainment television as preschoolers scored lower on school readiness measures when they were 5 and 6 years old, Mr. Wright said.

In another survey, a group that also watched only commercial TV had lower high school scores in math, science and English than peers who primarily watched educational television.

"Educational" television isn't limited to public TV. As examples of quality programming, Mr. Wright cited shows such as PBS' "Sesame Street" and "Arthur," but also cable-network shows such as Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues" and "Gullah Gullah Island," and an array of educational videos.

Mr. Wright said the center's findings, based on more than a decade of research, upend the old Marshall McLuhan maxim, "The medium is the message."

"The message is the message," Mr. Wright said. "Television doesn't have effects, as such. It depends on what you watch. It's so obvious that it's ridiculous."

Thus, instead of viewing electronic media as inherently harmful to their children, parents need to learn how to recognize and choose quality programming. In doing so, Mr. Wright said, they are teaching their children how to use "good" media to their advantage.

Mr. Wright, his wife and partner Aletha Huston, and longtime collaborator Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts, performed school readiness research on 300 low-income preschool children.

They found that children who watched 25 minutes a day of public television's "Sesame Street," for example, were more ready to learn than those who watched the same amount of network cartoons. "Readiness to learn" factors included a child's attitude, skills, knowledge and self-control.

Follow-up research

In their work comparing high school scores, Mr. Wright's group recontacted 570 children, now in high school, whom they had studied 10-13 years ago in Springfield, Mass., and Topeka, Kan. They interviewed the students by telephone and obtained high school transcripts directly from their schools, Mr. Wright said.

Of that study group, children who had watched an hour a day of educational television at age 5 scored at least a third of a grade point higher in high school English, math and science than their peers who had watched no educational television.

However, there were gender differences. Among the high schoolers, the effect of watching educational television was significant for boys but only borderline for girls, Mr. Wright said.

The researchers are unsure of why, but suspect that boys who go against the grain by watching educational television end up as better students. Most girls, however, already have better study habits and thus may not enjoy the same gains simply from watching educational television.

The effects go beyond academic performance. Children who begin on an "educational" track with television are more likely to move on to more sophisticated and higher-quality computer programs and CD-ROMs, Mr. Wright said.

He fears that children who don't watch educational television or have access to high-quality computer programs "instead are playing the action, shooting and dangerous-driving video games, which in general have the least educational content and the greatest potential risk."

Mr. Wright urged that researchers evaluate television programs and computer software to help guide parents to programming that is measurably good for children. Parents must help their children become literate in electronic media in the same way they help them learn to read.

"We're celebrating the end of the century in which universal reading ability was accomplished," he said. "For the next century, why shouldn't everyone be media literate? It's the next century's literacy."

Beth Frerking is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.