The average American household has about three television sets. It’s no wonder children ages 8-18 watch about three hours of television daily, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children watch no more than 1-2 hours of television per day.

Child development professionals who recommend that children watch less television argue that television takes away from the time children are doing homework or reading. Studies have shown that watching television while doing homework adversely affects performance. Furthermore, research has shown that the more time children spend watching television, the more likely they are to be obese and have aggressive behavior.

On the other hand, some contend that what matters is the content of what kids are watching, not just the time spent watching television. Research suggests that watching educational programs, including Sesame Street , Blue’s Clues , and Magic School Bus , is beneficial to children’s academic achievement.

Although many people assume television has a negative impact on educational achievement, until now, there has been a limited amount of research on the association between television use and measures of academic achievement. A new study in the July 2005 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that children who have a television set in their bedroom have lower academic achievement test scores, while those who have access to a home computer have higher scores.

About the Study

This study included about 350 ethnically diverse third graders from six California public elementary schools. The students completed classroom interviews to indicate the number of television sets and computers in their home, whether they had a television in their bedroom and/or access to a home computer, and how much time they spent doing various media activities (i.e., watching television, playing on the computer, watching movies or videos, non-homework reading, and doing homework). In addition, 226 of the children’s parents completed phone interviews, during which they estimated the amount of time their children spent doing the various media activities.

The researchers conducted interviews in the fall and spring of the school year, and the school provided test scores from the students’ grade three academic achievement tests (mathematics, reading, and language arts), which were administered in the spring.

The Findings

The students reported having about three television sets in their homes, with only 5% reporting having just one. Seventy-one percent of the children had a television set in their bedroom, and 71% had access to a computer at home.

The students who had a television in their bedroom scored significantly lower on all tests, compared with those without a bedroom television. Students with home computer access scored higher on all tests, compared to those without access. The table below describes the differences in scores, which varied substantially depending on home media access, by 10-20 points.

TestBedroom televisionNo bedroom televisionHome computer accessNo home computer access
Mathematics 53635949
Reading 48555245
Language arts 51605648

Bedroom televisions or home computer access did not affect time spent reading or doing homework.

These findings are limited because they rely on students’ and parents’ reports of media use, which can be inaccurate. Also, other confounding factors may have influenced the results. For instance, it is possible that parents who provide home computer access and/or forbid a television in the bedroom are more involved in their children’s academic lives, which may account for some of the effects seen in this study.

How Does This Affect You?

These results suggest that keeping televisions out of kids’ bedrooms may contribute to their academic performance. Furthermore, providing them with access to a computer at home may also benefit their studies.

Another study in the same issue of the Archives also investigated the association between childhood television viewing and educational achievement. This study followed about 1,000 children from birth to age 26. The researchers determined that participants who spent more time watching television during childhood and adolescence were significantly less likely to attain a university degree. (Each additional hour of television per week was associated with a 25% reduction in the likelihood of getting a college degree.)

Both of these studies are in line with previous research that indicates that excessive television can have a negative impact on children. But, as the authors of an accompanying editorial point out, the researchers of these studies neglected to take the specific content of the television programs into account—they only measured time. It is well documented that some exposure to educational television can actually improve school readiness, literacy, and interest in science.

Therefore, the results of these studies do not mean that you should banish television from your children’s lives. It is important to monitor and limit the amount and type of television your kids are watching. Promote age-appropriate educational programming and make rules about how much “entertainment” television your kids are allowed to watch.