The Rube Tube and Other Adventures in the Media’s Love Affair with Murky Social Science

Another new study out this week suggests that for each additional hour of TV a toddler watches per week, the more difficulty he or she may have with math, bullying, and overall engagement in the classroom at age 10. Of course, like most studies picked up by the media, articles covering this study do not (1) detail the controls made in the study or (2) define how the study measured math success, bullying and classroom engagement.

Articles did all manage to get this data up front:

For each hour of television toddlers watched:

  • their classroom engagement fell by 7 percent
  • their math achievement by 6 percent
  • they had a 10 percent higher likelihood of being victimized by classmates
  • time spent being physically active fell 13 percent
  • body mass index was 5 percent higher
  • consumption of soft drinks and snacks was 9 percent and 10 percent higher, respectively

Of course, after throwing out titles to their articles like, “Study links toddlers’ TV habits and later problems in classroom,” and my personal favorite “TV Watching Makes Children Fatter and Stupider” (keep up the good work Times of India!), some do mention, near the end, that the study makes NO CAUSAL LINK, only a correlation. Meaning, this could be because people with less resources are forced to rely on TV more, or that parents who aren’t engaged with their kids are looser with TV rules, or that kids who are already getting picked on for their weight find refuge in television.

In other words, there is no reason to think you’re otherwise well-tended to child will turn into a potted plant if you let them watch Blue’s Clues.

Let’s turn to the media’s coverage of a major governmental study out this week about childcare. Apparently, kids in “high quality” day care outperform those in “low quality” care even in high school. Wow! As a working mom, this could be really useful info for me! Of course, while throwing out headlines like, “Poor child-care effects linger into adolescence,” and “Better Child Day Care Produces Smarter Adults,” the articles go on to explain that “high quality care” is “defined by the caregiver’s warmth, emotional support, and cognitive stimulation of the kids.”

Just a question: How exactly did the study’s authors measure warmth? Anyone have a warmth stick I can bring to my child’s day care tonight? Oh, by the way, those “lasting effects” are measured as a 2-5% lift in standardized tests. And buried in an online chat with the study’s authors, they said this: “Parenting appears to matter more than child care so the most important thing parents can do is make decisions that allow them to feel financially and emotionally secure so they can be the best parents they can be.”

I’m not trying to impugn the scientists who did these studies. I think social science is an interesting field, and obviously it’s worth studying. But the media is obsessed with a study, and often the headlines and take-away from the article are in direct opposition to what the study’s authors say themselves. The media cares only about making a splash with parents, not about the plodding, slow, meticulous machine that is reliable social science. But parents are just left with tid bits of things to make them feel guilty. Have your kid in day care? Freak out! Maybe it’s not good enough and your kid will be ruined forever! Let your kid watch TV? You’ve already melted your child’s brain and by 10 his only skills will be eating marshmellow fluff out of the jar and singing the theme-song to Dora!

This is unkind, because frankly, parents worry about this kind of thing without any help. For the record, my toddler doesn’t watch any TV, but he is in daycare, so this week anyway, I’ve got about a 50/50 shot of him being the next Einstein, or returning bowling balls to elementary students who got them stuck on the bumpers for a living.

Maybe something in the news next week will break the tie.

4 Responses to “The Rube Tube and Other Adventures in the Media’s Love Affair with Murky Social Science”
  1. Skinny Sushi says:

    This stuff kills me. Every time I turn around there is another study that somehow labels me a bad parent because we watch a 15 minute tv show in the mornings, or because I have to work from home so I am not 100% focused on her every second.

    • H says:

      Once you add up all the studies that seemingly indict parents, it’s hard to believe any of us grew up to be functional adults, eh? 🙂

  2. Jenny says:

    Frankly, this is how the media at large respond to research of any kind. Which is sad, because there is SO MUCH that goes into good research to make sure that the results are more reliable than flashy sensational crap. Sigh. Poor researchers, so misunderstood.

    • H says:

      You are right. I see this a lot, not just in parenting issues. I think it is VERY frustrating to researchers and makes them wary of journalists. But then, the journalists are not entirely the problem. Audiences love to eat up and debate these headlines, without worrying about what the study actually says. And the media is simply slave to whatever gets page views. Plus, we’re hardly paying them anymore (says an actual newspaper subscriber).

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