Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Are Television and Video Games Really Harmful for Kids?

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Are Television and Video Games Really Harmful for Kids?

Article excerpt

Are watching television (TV) and playing video games really harmful for children's development? By using a unique longitudinal dataset with detailed information on children's development and health, we examined the causal effect of hours of TV watched or of video games played on school-aged children's problem behavior, orientation to school, and obesity. The results suggested that the answer to the question is yes, but the magnitude of the effect is sufficiently small to be considered as negligible. The results were robust to within-twin-fixed effects. (JEL 110, 120)


For young children, there are many benefits of watching television (TV) and playing video games. TV and video games provide very sophisticated entertainment environments using high-level technologies and graphics, which may stimulate many new thoughts and feelings in children by gaining knowledge to which they would never have been exposed in their own community. TV and video games can increase children's interest in and awareness of various social problems ranging from violence to natural disasters.

Apart from the benefits, many parents are concerned when their children spend much of their time in front of the TV or video games. There are numerous articles raising alarm over childhood exposure to TV or video games. For example, in the issue dated August 4, 2009, TIME headlined "Watching TV: Even Worse for Kids than You Think" and warned how sedentary behavior, such as watching TV or playing video games, has a strong influence on the obesity in young children. In the issue dated November 3, 2008, CNN broadcasted "Violent Video Games Linked to Child Aggression" and reported that children who were exposed to video games are more likely to exhibit out-of-control behaviors over time than those who were not. The widespread perception among people, especially parents, is that watching TV and playing video games have a negative influence on children's behavior, health, and cognitive development; however, rigorous measurement of the effects is difficult owing to data and methodological limitations. Much policy debate on this topic hinges on more concrete and scientific evidence: the Government of Japan, including the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Cabinet Office, has formed research committees and sought rigorous evidence on the effect of childhood exposure to TV or video games on outcomes such as violence and communication skills.

While much is known about the cross-sectional relationship between TV or video games and children's development, little is known about how children who actually spend more time in front of TV or video games would have developed if they had spent less time doing so. The observed differences in hours watching TV or playing video games may merely reflect, for example, differences in the extent to which children are allowed to watch more TV or play more video games, or in the extent to which children prefer to spend time alone instead of playing with their friends: a selection bias arises when part of the children's development can be explained by unobserved parental or child characteristics. The unobserved parental and child characteristics may be associated with a decrease in children's healthy development. In other words, observed correlations using cross-sectional data from previous literature, such as Christakis et al. (2004) and Zimmerman and Christakis (2005), do not provide a complete description of the effect of TV or video games and result in biased and inconsistent estimates. In this study, we wished to answer the question of whether differences in childhood exposure to TV and video games cause differences in children's development.

Given the considerable attention from the general public as well as policy circles who wish to identify the causes of children's development, understanding the effects of watching TV and playing video games may have significant implications. …

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