TV in the kid's room

Bloomberg School tracked 3rd-graders

Q&a

July 05, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

American households with children have an average of 2.8 televisions. Ninety-seven percent of those households have one or more VCRs or DVD players. Two-thirds have at least one computer.

If you think American kids are media-saturated, you're right. But if a new study conducted by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University is to be believed, it's not the quantity that matters; it's where kids are being saturated.

"We looked at the way kids use media and how it related to academic achievement," says Dina Borzekowski, lead author of "The Remote, The Mouse, and the No. 2 Pencil," a research paper on the project that was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine yesterday. "We had one very clear finding: Kids who have a TV in their bedroom do worse, academically, than kids who don't.

"Even allowing for the limitations of our study, we recommend that parents not allow televisions in children's bedrooms, or that they remove them if they are already present."

The project - funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - tracked nearly 400 California third-graders during the 1999-2000 school year, taking note of the number and placement of TVs and computers in each child's home and recording the students' performances in math, language arts and reading on their Stanford Achievement Tests that year.

Children who had televisions in their bedrooms - which amounted to 64 percent of the sample - scored 8 points lower in math and language arts, and 7 points lower in reading. Kids whose homes featured a computer (59 percent) scored 6 points higher in math and language arts, and 4 percent higher in reading.

"The effects were much greater than we expected," says Borzekowski, an assistant professor at the school of public health.

Borzekowski, a Baltimore mother of three, discussed the project with The Sun.

What surprised you about the study?

We figured it'd be a matter of how much time kids spent [consuming], more than the media environment itself. But that wasn't as great a factor.

Why do bedroom TVs have a harmful effect?

That's a bit beyond the scope of the study, but ... well, I'm not one of those people who hate TV. There are wonderful programs available for kids and their families. But I do believe that media should be a shared experience, so parents and kids can discuss and enjoy what's being watched together. That's more likely to happen if the media is in the family room than in the bedroom.

Whether it's cause and effect or not, we can't say. Our study only shows that there's a relationship between these variables [TV location and academic achievement].

Why do so many kids have TVs in their bedrooms?

Have you ever had an old TV set? What do you do with it? It's hard to leave those things out on the curb. Often, we leave them in a spare bedroom, or put them in a child's bedroom.

One concern is that it's the old media that get put in the kids' rooms. New media have a very effective remedy: the V-chip. But most people leave their new technology in the family room or living room and put old media in the bedrooms.

You've studied kids and the media for years. Why?

I watched a tremendous amount of TV as a child. I saw wonderful programming - I grew up on Sesame Street and The Electric Company - and saw some lousy programming, too. I saw that TV could be a wonderful resource for reaching people, hopefully with positive messages. But [my interest] does come out of watching way too much as a child.

Every study has limitations. What would you like to have looked at that you didn't?

The big thing is content. However, it's hard for a child, or even an adult, to report on what they've watched. What happens if they've watched five minutes of one thing, half-hour of another? And when do they watch? We don't know if a child watched his three hours in the afternoon, or behind a closed bedroom door when he or she ought to be sleeping. Those things could be important, too.

The study showed a reverse correlation between time spent on homework and performance on tests. How do you explain that?

If you ask a kid who's having a harder time in school, it's possible that that child may have to spend more time on homework. The child who's doing well might finish his homework in five or 10 minutes. That's one possible explanation.

How might you build on your findings?

Well, our results suggest we ought to look at the content [of viewing] ... Either that or [do] intervention, where we'd have an experimental design in which we look at kids who start [the year] with TVs in their rooms, then remove them and look at what happens as a result.

But I'm not going to do it the other way around. I'm afraid I'm not willing to put televisions into kids' bedrooms. Research shows that places them at risk in a number of ways. After all, I'm a mother.

The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine is online at http://archpedi.ama-assn.org. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is online at www.jhsph.edu.

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