Are Television and Video Games Really Harmful to Kids?

INUI Tomohiko
Faculty Fellow, RIETI

The role of early childhood education has become increasingly important

With the increased interest in the influence of early childhood education in recent years, we have seen an unprecedentedly rapid rise in a range of economic research findings and efforts. Almond and Currie (2011) clearly illustrate the effects of human capital investment during early childhood before age five on educational achievements in later school years, as well as on productivity and wages post schooling. In another study on a sample of identical twins in Japan, we conducted empirical research on whether birth weight itself has an effect on an individual's later academic and economic outcomes. The findings show that a higher birth weight has a positive effect on academic achievements through at least age 15 (Nakamuro, Uzuki, and Inui, 2013).

As such, the strong likelihood that the early childhood environment has a major influence on a child's long term development has triggered increasing interest in the effects of early education and living environments on children.

Are watching television and playing video games really harmful to children's development?

Television (TV) and video games constitute a substantial part of children's everyday lives today, and many parents might wonder how much exposure should be allowed, and what kind of TV programs they should permit their child to watch. To answer the first part of this question, we conducted empirical research on how exposure (particularly among early elementary school children) to TV or video games affects children's development in later years (Nakamuro, Inui, Senoh, and Hiromatsu, 2013). The data that we used in our empirical analysis were drawn from the Longitudinal Survey of Babies in 21st Century (covering babies born in 2001), a longitudinal survey tracking around 50,000 newborn babies who were born in Japan in 2001 (in either January or July), conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. By using such longitudinal dataset, we could closely examine the effect of hours of TV watched or video games played on children's development while controlling for their attributes as well as family environments. In this research, we analyzed the period from the beginning of first grade until the end of third grade, and examined the impact of watching TV and playing video games on three outcome measures of children's development: (1) problem behaviors observed inside and outside the home, (2) positive orientation to school, and (3) obesity.

The analytical findings of this research indicate that longer TV-viewing hours have a negative impact on the three outcome measures mentioned above. The results also confirm that longer video game-playing hours have a negative impact on school-aged children's (1) problem behaviors observed inside and outside the home and (2) positive orientation to school.

But the magnitude of this effect is not cause for great concern. Unless children spend a significant number of hours watching TV and playing video games (i.e., more than two hours a day), the effect is negligible. In previous research, some results overestimated the negative impact of time spent in these activities. Presumably, this was caused by not controlling for children's attributes and family environment.

Do television and video games steal study hours from children?

The Longitudinal Survey of Babies in 21st Century also covers the issue of children's study hours. I am currently a member of a RIETI project (Analysis on Service Industries: Productivity, Economic Welfare, and Policy Evaluation) that is conducting research on the possible impact of TV and video games on the number of children's study hours.

In education economics, almost no research has been attempted on the role of children's study hours and efforts (likely the most important determinative factors) in their academic achievement. But recent studies in this field have succeeded in identifying how the number of hours studying affects academic achievements (e.g., Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner, 2008). Meanwhile, no serious study seems to have been conducted up to now regarding the determining factors for the number of hours that children study. Given that some studies suggest that there is a strong negative correlation between TV watching/video game playing and the number of hours children study, our research focuses on examining empirically whether childhood exposure to such activities diminishes the number of hours children spend studying, while controlling for each child's attributes and family environment.

The uniqueness of this research project lies in the fact that it targets children in the early elementary school years, while preceding studies conducted overseas target teenagers and college students. In Japan, the gap with regard to family educational expenses begins to widen when a child is in the lower grades of elementary school, reflecting parents' educational strategies with respect to providing their children with the opportunity to receive private tutoring, enrichment lessons, and building of a book-reading habit. For this reason, some researchers point out that the basis for a child's study habits is formed in the lower grades of elementary school. Moreover, as mentioned above, early childhood investment is highly likely to have a long-term impact, and therefore it is very important to identify the determining factors that influence learning capital in early childhood within a policymaking context.

It is hoped that there will be more comprehensive discussions from a policymaking perspective on the effects of family environments and educational investment in childhood, based on extensive and rigorous studies on how TV/video games affect children's development and the number of hours they spend studying.

October 8, 2013
  • Almond, D., and Currie, J. (2011). "Human capital development before age 5," Card, D. and Ashenfelter O. eds. Handbook of Labor Economics, Volume 4, Part B, 1315-1486.
  • Stinebrickner, R. and Stinebrickner, T. R., (2008) "The Causal Effect of Studying on Academic Performance" The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 8(1), 1-55
  • Nakamuro, M, Inui, T., Senoh W. and Hiromatsu, T. (2013) "Are Television and Video Games Really Harmful for Kids? Empirical Evidence from the Longitudinal Survey of Babies in the 21st Century," RIETI Discussion Paper, 13-E-046
  • Nakamuro, M, Uzuki, Y. and Inui, T. (2013) "The Effects of Birth Weight: Does Fetal Origin Really Matter for Long-run Outcomes?" Economics Letters, Vol. 121, Issue 1, 53-58

October 8, 2013