Is It TV That's Bad - Or the Study?

by Ron McClamrock

Ron McClamrock teaches the philosophy of science at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Originally in Newsday, April 8, 2002

WAIT A MINUTE, I have to turn off the TV. My son watched a half hour of "Salmon: A Dangerous Journey" on The Discovery Channel and 20 minutes of PBS's "Reading Rainbow" earlier today; I need to make sure he doesn't watch more than 10 minutes of "Sesame Street" now, lest he be put at risk for aggression in later years.

Funny, I wouldn't have thought this would hurt him. But a study just published in the journal Science has received wide media coverage for purportedly showing an important link between TV watching and aggressive acts. This is for overall TV viewing, mind you, not specifically violent programming. The upshot, according to lead researcher Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University, is that "responsible parents should avoid permitting their children to watch more than one hour of television a day."

But don't turn off the reruns of "Mister Rogers" yet. Whether various sorts of media exposure contribute to violence is an open and important question, but the current study and its interpretation in the media contribute more confusion than clarification to this issue.

Johnson and his colleagues have, if their study is correct, shown that the rate of aggressive acts or violent acts in the later teen years can be partially predicted by the average number of hours of TV watched by a person at age 14. Violent behavior occurs in only about 6 percent of teenagers who watched less than one hour a day at age 14, but in those who watched one to three hours a day the rate of aggression is about 18 percent. For those watching more than three hours a day, it goes to about 25 percent.

There are, of course, some concerns about the methodology for getting these correlations. For example, how did they assess the number of hours watched? They asked the kids and their mothers. But even if those concerns are overlooked, there is a far more central worry about the way the study is being interpreted.

It is a basic principle of social science research that "correlation is not causation." Gray hair and heart attacks are correlated - that is, heart attacks are on average far more likely among people with gray hair than among those with dark hair. But it goes without saying that washing the gray away - even if it makes you feel younger - won't reduce your risk of having a heart attack. The correlation is quite obviously explained not by some effect of gray hair on the heart, but by the fact that both have age as a central causal factor; they are both symptoms of age.

So whenever we're given a correlation between two things, we need to ask: Why are these things related? In the TV and aggression case in particular, is the aggression in some way caused by the TV exposure, or could the aggression and the increased TV watching both be symptoms of something else?

Before we start drawing lines in the sand about what "responsible" parents should do, it's worthwhile to ask: What kind of home situation is one where children watch less than an hour a day of television?

First, it's an uncommon one. In the study's population, it was about 12 percent of the total. Second, these are quite plausibly family situations that share other features we might easily see as linked to lower levels of aggressive behaviors.

Perhaps there are involved parents who encourage engagement in other productive activities, or who at least keep a tighter rein on what the kids are up to. And, likewise, for the kids watching more than three hours of TV a day, it's not at all implausible that they, on average, have everyday lives that get far less close monitoring and guidance by parents and their proxies.

I don't know whether these are the factors that account for the study's correlation between TV watching and aggression or not. But neither does anybody else - including the researchers of the current study. The study itself only shows the correlation, not how this correlation comes about. And if they are both symptoms of something else, rather than the TV-watching causing the aggression, then cutting back on TV will have no more effect on aggression than hair-dyeing does on heart attacks.

But the media seem to be ignoring this. Headlines in particular take the study to show that "TV Time Yields Violence" (The Boston Globe) or that "Just an Hour of TV a Day Leads to Violence" (Reuters). As noted, even Johnson, the lead researcher, has interpreted the study as telling parents to keep their children from watching more than an hour a day.

Of course, the researchers themselves and most of the interpreters want us to see this as another reason for thinking that violent content on television is responsible for the rise in aggression. The correlation of aggression with overall TV watching is driven by the simple fact that "about 60 percent of TV programs contain violence," according to Science's own interpretation, which accompanies the study. And, personally, I'm not so unsympathetic: I think there is some reason to worry that the amount of violent content viewed by children may have real and disturbing consequences.

But the point to remember is that this conclusion isn't in any way shown by the data found by the current study.

It's always tempting to blame the problem on TV; simple explanations suggest simple solutions. But the "science" here shows no such simplicity. Blaming Hollywood - or parents for not turning the set off - is cheap and easy. Unfortunately, solving real and complex social problems is rarely cheap and easy.

So go ahead and finish watching "Sesame Street," son. If Elmo's careful examination of the letter "T" turns you into the class bully, I guess I'll have no one to blame but myself.

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.