Tuning in doesn’t make you tune out

As a parent, access to television is seen as a privilege and not a right. We place a television alluringly in the family room and then place an invisible wall around it saying ‘Off Limits.’ If a request to watch television comes in from one or more household members it is carefully reviewed by committee including taking of submissions from all interested parties, examinations of the time of the day and the day of the week, and a rigorous account as to the applicants’ other merits (doing homework, asking nicely). Then a decision is based with reference to guidelines as well as precedent. Unfavourable decisions usually are accompanied by appeals and requirements for the committee to suggest alternative activities. Favourable ones are then referred to a lower level subcommittee to determine what will actually be watched on television.

In an earlier day, without DVDs or Tivo, that process would have been lengthy enough so that a new problem of ‘there is nothing interesting on TV’ would have come up and the TV may actually not get turned on. Today, we don’t have the luxury and so practices are then reviewed by a non-consultantive panel regarding whether too much TV is being watched overall. In the end, I think an average child in our household ends up watching 4-6 hours per week (yes, per week; about a seventh of the average in the population. For TV loving parents such as us, this is somewhat surprising).

Our review panel devours any studies that might enlighten on this issue. The sum total of those studies has been basically uninformative. Some claim TV is plain bad, others it depends on what you watch and others depend on who watches with you. The end result is too use common sense as these outcomes also apply to books and computers.

A new study has appeared by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro that will get our attention this evening. These economists at the University of Chicago have used the fact that television was introduced at different times in different cities of the US. They have then taken standardised tests conducted in the 1960s to examine the long-term effects of television watching. Theoretically, if television is bad, if you had been watching it for 12 years before taking the test as opposed to 4 years or not at all, it would show up in test performance. [See this article in Slate for a more comprehensive explanation.] Moreover, this is all done at a time prior to VCRs etc where there was little ability of parents to choose what their children might watch and there was certainly no regulation of advertising content.

And the results: there is certainly no negative effect from television watching. If anything the effect was positive and more so for children in non-English speaking households and where the mother had less than a high-school education.

Can we disband our review processes now and let the kids watch TV until they are sick of it? Then we would have more time to get back watching as much TV as we did when we were growing up.

The earlier the better

Professor Jim Heckman (University of Chicago and 2004 Nobel Prize winner) presented a very interesting lecture on education policy here at the University of Melbourne. The main insight from his work is how effective (and productive in a social rate of return sense) early childhood interventions are. These are not to improve IQ but to prove the ‘softer’ stuff that allows you to make use of your IQ (e.g., motivation, social awareness, etc). What you experience prior to age 6 (!) is apparently critical in this.

His papers are available on the web. But if I relate these findings to those in an earlier blog about IR reforms, I worry if the cost of those reforms is going to be much greater economically than anyone has appreciated to date. Coupled with the government’s lacklustre approach to childcare and we are working in the wrong direction on this one.

Restraining parents

Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame wrote an interesting paper recently that strongly suggested that car seats did not assist in preventing child fatalities in car crashes any more than seat belts. A link to his article and related findings is here.

Now when I proudly brought this excellent piece of econometric research home as evidence as to how we could free up space in the car, I was informed that our household behaviour would not be changing. Car seats all around until they are well beyond 6 years old. Well, we had the seats anyway (4 or 5 by last count between various cars and ages and a total expenditure of $1000).

I suspect that reaction will be similar. Give parents and option and suggest that it will have a marginal improvement in safety and they will demand it in droves. Get some government regulations and it is entrenched forever.

But one wonders how far this might go. Suppose I developed a cocoon type restraint whereby you took said children, put them in a coffin like structure with a little window to look out of and staked them neatly in the boot of the car or SUV. Now I am pretty sure I could get some engineer to demonstate their safety properties. Coupled with an alluring idea of having the kids out of sight while driving (whine free!) and I think this is a winning product.

Parental demand for safety (subject to wealth constraints) seems to me to be unlimited and as close to inelastic as we are ever going to find. Although against this is the fact that we are yet to see the ‘Safe and Silent Cocoon.’ Nonetheless, an issue of public policy makers interested in consumer protection is how to restrain parental purchases of unnecessary equipment. I for one could use some restraint.

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