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Article |

The Remote, the Mouse, and the No. 2 Pencil:  The Household Media Environment and Academic Achievement Among Third Grade Students FREE

Dina L. G. Borzekowski, EdD; Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH
[+] Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Population and Family Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Md (Dr Borzekowski); and Division of General Pediatrics, Department of Pediatrics and Stanford Prevention Research Center, Department of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif (Dr Robinson).


Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159(7):607-613. doi:10.1001/archpedi.159.7.607.
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Background  Media can influence aspects of a child’s physical, social, and cognitive development; however, the associations between a child’s household media environment, media use, and academic achievement have yet to be determined.

Objective  To examine relationships among a child’s household media environment, media use, and academic achievement.

Methods  During a single academic year, data were collected through classroom surveys and telephone interviews from an ethnically diverse sample of third grade students and their parents from 6 northern California public elementary schools. The majority of our analyses derive from spring 2000 data, including academic achievement assessed through the mathematics, reading, and language arts sections of the Stanford Achievement Test. We fit linear regression models to determine the associations between variations in household media and per-formance on the standardized tests, adjusting for demographic and media use variables.

Results  The household media environment is significantly associated with students’ performance on the standardized tests. It was found that having a bedroom television set was significantly and negatively associated with students’ test scores, while home computer access and use were positively associated with the scores. Regression models significantly predicted up to 24% of the variation in the scores. Absence of a bedroom television combined with access to a home computer was consistently associated with the highest standardized test scores.

Conclusion  This study adds to the growing literature reporting that having a bedroom television set may be detrimental to young elementary school children. It also suggests that having and using a home computer may be associated with better academic achievement.

Figures in this Article

American parents are frequently heard instructing their children to turn off the television set to do their homework. Some of these same parents regularly purchase and equip their households with the latest computer technology so that their children will not be “disconnected” or “disadvantaged.” Such words and actions, while representing genuine concerns, are not based on an unequivocal or established body of literature. Many assume quite simplistically that television is bad and computers are good, at least when it comes to children’s cognitive development and academic achievement. A common argument is that watching television is passive, promoting zombie-like behaviors, while computer use is active, encouraging problem solving and mental stimulation.1,2

To say that today’s children live in a media-rich environment is a gross understatement. United States households with children have an average of 2.8 television sets, and 97% of these households have at least 1 VCR or DVD player.3,4 More than two thirds of households with children have at least 1 computer and more than half (53%) have home Internet access.3,5 The household media environment is less frequently examined, and its impact on children is not yet well understood.

Researchers have been studying media use for decades, and we are becoming more aware of how media affect children’s development and behaviors. Youth concurrently use screen-based electronic media for up to 6 hours per day.3,6 Substantial evidence exists to show that people who use media more heavily are at greater risk for obesity7,8 and aggressive behavior.9,10 Less clear is the relationship between media and academic achievement.

Historically, the introduction of mass media has been met with concerns over its possible negative impact on children’s cognitive development and school performance. Targeting media ranging from dime-store novels to the Xbox (Microsoft Corp, Redmond, Wash), children’s advocates have claimed that media use interferes with how children allot time and focus on their studies. Interestingly, only a few research studies support this. One study showed that among middle school students, greater television access and use are associated with less time reading and doing homework.11 In a recent experiment, those doing homework with a television soap opera broadcast in the background performed significantly more poorly and slowly than those with music videos, radio, and nothing playing in the background.12 Another study found that boys who spent more time playing video games were less academically successful than their peers who played infrequently.13

Contradicting those who condemn media is another group who see media’s potential to encourage critical thinking skills and the pursuit of knowledge. Beyond the extensive and positive literature regarding Sesame Street,14 there are studies15,16 showing that exposure to other educational programs (eg, Blue’s Clues, Magic School Bus) can improve school readiness, literacy, and interest in science. Well-designed educational media can enhance children’s academic skills.17,18 Researchers have found that computer use, which includes playing games, word processing, and seeking information, is associated with more advanced spatial, iconic, and visual skills.1921 Those who use computers heavily had better school grades than their peers who reported less computer use.22 A recent experiment with college students found that non–game players who were taught and encouraged to play video games improved their attention to and processing of visual cues.23

To examine the relationships between household media environment, media use, and academic achievement, we considered data from a school-based cohort of third graders. We hypothesized that a child’s household media environment and media use would be associated with differential levels of academic achievement. We expected students who lived in video-rich households, meaning those with video technology in the bedroom and elsewhere in the home, to have poorer test scores. In line with popular thinking about the benefits of computers, we anticipated that children who had access to home computers and used them frequently would have higher academic scores than those without access to home computers and who were less frequent users. We also investigated the amount of time spent reading and doing homework, anticipating that these activities might affect the associations among media environments, media use, and test performance. Because we were not measuring media content, we believed that the mechanism explaining these potential relationships would concern unobserved parenting characteristics. Performing such an analysis could prove valuable to parents and health care providers in offering general information on how the media environment relates to a child’s academic achievement.

SUBJECTS AND PROCEDURE

All third grade students and their parents from 12 public schools were eligible to participate in a randomized controlled intervention study of obesity and smoking. Because the obesity intervention involved reducing media use, only participants from the 6 schools randomized to the antismoking condition were used in these analyses. Data were collected using student surveys and telephone interviews of parents during the 1999-2000 academic year. Schools provided test scores from the students’ grade 3 tests (mathematics, reading, and language arts) administered during spring 2000. We tracked and maintained confidentiality by using unique identification numbers on all surveys, interview records, and test data. Our protocol employed active child assent and passive parental consent, and students and parents had the opportunity to decline participation at each assessment. The study was approved by the Stanford University School of Medicine Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research (Stanford, Calif).

Trained data collectors assessed students on 2 consecutive non-Monday school days in each school. Questions were read aloud by data collectors, and students marked their responses directly in the survey packets. To collect data from the parents, trained research assistants telephoned parents and guardians using home numbers obtained through the school district. Up to 10 call attempts were made on different days and times. Attempts were made to primarily interview mothers or female guardians. For the majority of analyses presented in this article, we draw from data collected in the spring of 2000; however, for information on environmental media changes, we use data from both fall 1999 and spring 2000.

DEMOGRAPHICS

Students reported their sex and age while parents indicated ethnic group and main language spoken at home. Parents indicated the highest level of education that they and/or any other parent living in the household had completed.

HOUSEHOLD MEDIA ENVIRONMENT

Students reported on their household media environments, including the number of working television sets, computers, VCRs, and video game players in the home. Students also reported the presence of a television set in the room they regularly slept in and whether they had access to and used a home computer. For most of our analyses, we included the bedroom television or home computer access only if a student reported positive responses to these items at both the fall and spring assessments. We did, however, conduct a few additional analyses considering students who “gained” or “lost” a bedroom television or home computer access between the baseline and follow-up data collection points.

MEDIA USE, RECREATIONAL READING, AND HOMEWORK TIME

Because self- and parent-reported child media use is subject to measurement error, each having its own strengths and weaknesses,24 we performed 2 sets of analyses. One set employed parents’ estimates of their children’s activities and the other set used students’ self-reports of their activities. Each parent estimated, in hours and minutes, how much time his or her child spent on an average school day and an average weekend day watching regular television (broadcast, cable, or satellite), using a computer (not for homework), watching video tapes, playing video games, reading (not for school), and doing homework. During the classroom surveys, students first completed several time-estimating drills and then reported the time they spent watching television, playing on a computer, watching movies or videos, playing video games, reading (not for school), and doing homework, reporting separately for before and after school, “yesterday” and “last Saturday” on the first assessment day, and “yesterday” on the second assessment day. This instrument was adapted from a similar instrument previously used with high test-retest reliability (r = 0.94).25

ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

As our dependent variables, we employed students’ performance on the grade 3 mathematics, reading, and language arts sections of the Stanford Achievement Test.26 This test was developed to reflect the breadth and depth of commonly taught concepts and skills in US elementary schools. We used the normal curve equivalents (NCEs) rather than the raw or percentile scores because NCEs derive from the percentile ranks and provide an equal-interval scale. Also, NCEs allow for comparison across test sections, versions, and grades.26

ANALYSES

First, we examined relationships between media ownership and use using the χ2 test, t tests, and nonparametric Spearman correlations. We then performed bivariate and multivariate analyses to test relationships between household media and the test scores. To examine potential multivariate associations between household media and test scores, we first regressed each test score on demographic variables, media use, and home media environment variables, all entered simultaneously. Next, reading, homework, and all 2-way interactions between household media environment and reading or homework were added to complete the full models. We performed all analyses twice, first using data collected from the interviewed parents and then using data from the students themselves. Statistical significance for all analyses used a 2-tailed α level of .05.

A total of 410 third graders were enrolled in the 6 participating elementary schools at the beginning of this study. Of these, 386 students (94%) participated in the fall survey. Of the 24 nonparticipants, 14 were parent consent or child assent refusals, 5 were randomly removed from the sample because they were siblings of others in the sample, 3 were unable to provide valid data because of language or cognitive disabilities, and 2 were absent on all assessment days. In the spring, 348 students completed the survey, 348 students had mathematics and reading scores, and 341 had language arts test scores, together composing the study’s analysis sample. Also in the spring, 226 parents or guardians completed interviews, representing 58% of the eligible adult participants. While similar in sex, age, ethnicity, parents’ educational levels, main language spoken, and presence of a bedroom television, those students who had academic achievement scores in the spring were more likely to have home computer access (P<.001).

Our study sample had a mean (± SD) age of 8.5 years (± 0.6) in spring 2000, was 53% girls, and was ethnically diverse (29% Latino American, 25% Filipino/Pacific Islander, 18% white, 7% African American, 4% Asian American, and 18% multiethnic). Slightly less than half (44%) of the participating students came from households where no parent had completed more than a high school degree, and 28% lived in households where English was not the main language spoken. The mean (± SD) NCE scores were 56.5 (± 20.7) for mathematics, 49.9 (± 16.1) for reading, and 53.9 (± 19.4) for language arts, indicating that the students performed near the national mean for these tests (by definition, the national mean for the NCEs is 50).

In the spring surveys, students reported an average of 3.3 television sets per household, with only 5% of students indicating just 1 home television set. The surveys revealed that VCRs were ubiquitous, with 2% of students saying that no television sets in their homes were connected to VCRs. Similarly, 90% reported that they had a video game player that used either a television set or handheld platform. Some 71% said that they had a bedroom television set, and 71% indicated that there was a home computer to which they had access.

Boys and girls reported no significant differences in household television sets, home computers, VCRs, or presence of a bedroom television; only video game ownership was related to sex, with boys more likely to have them (97% boys vs 80% girls, P<.001). Media environment variables were not significantly associated with the parents’ education, student’s ethnicity, or primary language spoken in the household.

The data suggest that only a few changes occurred in the household media environment between fall 1999 and spring 2000. Ninety students (24%) reported no bedroom television in the fall and spring, while 244 (64%) students said there was a bedroom television at both times. Similar numbers of students suggested through their responses that the bedroom television was “lost” (n = 24; 6%) or “gained” (n = 25; 6%) between the time points. Likewise, 86 students (22%) indicated no home computer access in the fall and spring, while 230 (59%) said they had access at both times. Twenty-seven students (6%) reported home computer access in the fall but not in the spring (lost), while 45 (12%) said they had home computer access in the spring but not in the fall (gained).

Table 1 presents means, SDs, and correlations of parent and student time use reports. Use of each media type was only weakly to moderately associated with use of the other media, reading, and doing homework. Parents’ reports showed a positive relationship between students’ television use and time with computers (r = 0.20, P<.01), videotapes (r = 0.18, P<.01), and video games (r = 0.16, P<.05). According to parents’ reports, only computer use was positively associated with reading (r = 0.16, P<.05), and only television use was positively associated with time spent doing homework (r = 0.15, P<.05). Parents’ estimates of reading and doing homework were moderately correlated (r = 0.17, P<.01). Examining students’ estimates, time spent watching television was significantly associated only with playing video games (r = 0.27, P<.001). Computer use was correlated with time spent watching videotapes (r = 0.26, P<.001), playing video games (r = 0.26, P<.001), reading (r = 0.25, P<.001), and doing homework (r = 0.16, P<.01). Students’ estimates of reading and doing homework were also correlated (r = 0.16, P<.01).

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Parent and Student Reports of Students’ Time Spent With Media, Reading, and Doing Homework, Using Spring 2000 Data

While we observed a positive trend, weekly television use, as estimated by the students, was not significantly associated with having a bedroom television or the number of household televisions. Considering students’ estimates, time spent watching television was associated with having a bedroom television (t = 2.1, P<.05) but not with the number of household televisions. On average, children with a bedroom television set reported that they watch 12.8 hours per week compared with those without a bedroom television set, who reported 10.7 hours per week. Not surprisingly, computer use was associated with having access to a home computer. From parents’ reports, we found that students with home computer access spent, on average, 4.5 hours per week using the computer, compared with those without access who spent 1.0 hour per week (t = 5.5, P<.001). Students’ reports yielded similar findings; students with home computer access indicated that they spent, on average, 3.3 hours per week using a computer, while those without access said that they used computers 0.8 hour per week (t = 3.9, P<.001).

HOUSEHOLD MEDIA ENVIRONMENT AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

We found significant bivariate associations between the household media environment and students’ test scores. Looking at the media environment in spring 2000, students with a bedroom television scored significantly lower on all the tests compared with their peers without bedroom television sets (mathematics, 53.3 vs 63.1, respectively, t = 3.8, P<.001; reading, 47.5 vs 55.0, respectively, t = 3.8, P<.001; language arts, 51.1 vs 60.0, respectively, t = 3.7, P<.001). Those with home computer access scored higher on all the tests than those without access (mathematics, 58.8 vs 49.2, respectively, t = 3.9, P<.001; reading, 51.5 vs 44.7, respectively, t = 3.6, P<.001; language arts, 56.0 vs 47.5, respectively, t = 3.7, P<.001). When we simultaneously considered bedroom television and/or home computer access, we observed significant differences for each standardized test (all P<.001). Consistently, those with a bedroom television but no home computer access had, on average, the lowest scores and those with home computer access but no bedroom television had the highest scores.

As an additional analysis (using an analysis of variance test), we observed significant differences when we examined the students who lost or gained a bedroom television or home computer access across the data collection sessions. Figure 1 shows the average scores for each bedroom television status and Figure 2 shows the average scores for each home computer access status. With either type of media, test scores differed significantly across the groups (both P<.001).

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Figure 1.

Average test scores for each bedroom television (TV) status. Alphabetic pairings in each test type indicate significant differences (P<.05) between average test scores for media statuses.

Graphic Jump Location
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Figure 2.

Average test scores for each home computer access status. Alphabetic pairings in each test type indicate significant differences (P<.05) between average test scores for media statuses.

Graphic Jump Location
MULTIVARIATE RELATIONSHIPS

As described earlier, we fit the regression models to account for the possibility of 2-way interactions between home media environment and reading or homework. Because no interaction terms were significant, we present results for simplified models that include only the main variables. Table 2 offers the parameter estimates and statistics for the models predicting test scores; all the regression models significantly predicted academic achievement using both students’ and parents’ estimates. Regardless of whether we used the parents’ or students’ estimates, a bedroom television had a negative relationship with the predicted test scores. If we look at computer access and use, student estimates showed that access had a positive association with all the test scores (increasing scores by approximately 6 to 7 points) while parent estimates of computer use had a positive effect on scores (improving scores with approximately a 1 point per hour per week increase). Figure 3 illustrates the predicted test scores for students with and without a bedroom television and with and without home computer access, based on the regression models that control for parents’ educational level, student’s sex, student’s media use, reading, and doing homework. To estimate these scores, we assumed that the student was a girl, was living with a parent with no more than a high school education, and spent the sample mean amount of time per week for each activity. Using these models, the differences in predicted test scores are quite large. For example, we observe that the predicted mathematics scores (using students’ estimates) range from 41 to 58, showing a 17-point difference if a child’s household media environment is taken into consideration.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Parameter Estimates and Regression Models Predicting Grade 3 Academic Achievement
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Figure 3.

Predicted test scores, based on students’ estimates and parents’ estimates, for students with and without a bedroom television (Bed TV) and with and without home computer (Comp) access.

Graphic Jump Location

This research shows that even after accounting for demographics and reported activities, third grade students’ academic achievement was significantly related to their household media environment; consistently, having a bedroom television was related to worse test performance whereas having home computer access was associated with better performance. The observed differences were substantial, with scores varying by 10 to 20 points on a normal equivalence-based scale. In contrast, time spent using various media was not always predictive of scores. Similar to past research27 that studied media use and academic achievement, this study challenges the direction and even the presence of these relationships. When parents provided time estimates, we found that television use was positively associated with test scores. In the bivariate relationships, parents’ reports of computer use were positively related to academic achievement while students’ reports of computer use were negatively related to all their test scores. In the regression equations, students’ estimates of computer use were not significantly related to test scores; in contrast, the parents’ estimates were significantly and negatively related to the scores. The inconclusiveness of previous work as well as the variation within our own may reflect the problems of using these types of estimates.

In line with long-standing critiques of the media,1,28 people argue that if a child is watching television or playing video games, he or she is not reading or doing homework (activities presumed to advance one’s academic abilities). Our study does not support this. If such displacement were occurring, we would expect significant negative relationships between these activities, such that students who use more media also report less time reading and/or doing homework. Our data actually show that students who reported more time using media also reported spending more time reading and doing homework. This could reflect a systematic bias in students’ reports, with all time estimates being related. We did observe throughout our analyses that more time doing homework was associated with poorer test performance. On reflection, this relationship suggests that, among third graders, those who do less well at school may also need to spend more time completing their homework.

It is also possible that other unmeasured variables may be influencing our findings. We did not collect data on all the potential determinants of the household media environment or academic achievement. Psychosocial factors, which relate to both environment and performance, might serve to explain the relationship between household media and academic achievement.29,30 For example, children with bedroom television sets have more trouble falling asleep and have decreased sleep duration.31 Such sleep disturbances, rather than viewing hours, might be impacting students’ academic performance. Another explanation, not accounted for by this study, may lie in parenting styles. Parents who provide access to a home computer but forbid a bedroom television may be more involved in monitoring and promoting their children’s academic success.

While our results seem sound, we remain cautious about potential measurement error with several variables. We depend on parents and students to accurately estimate children’s activities, but such estimates are suspect to memory failure and bias,24,32 potentially introducing sufficient measurement error to obscure the true relationships among the assessed variables. More sensitive technologies might offer better estimates; however, many of these tools (eg, electronic meters, home video cameras, eye gaze equipment) are impractical and too expensive to employ in large-scale studies. In fact, our measures have good face validity and resemble those used by other researchers.6,7 We are quite confident with our dependent measure, performance on the standardized tests. These scores have proven to be reliable and valid measures of academic achievement.26

Another limitation of this work is its lack of specificity regarding the content of the students’ media use. We do not know if the television programs watched or computer games played offered subject matter or skills that would promote academic success or failure. Other research17,33,34 suggests that academically successful children watch educational programs more often than children who do less well at school, and exposure to educational content can improve students’ vocabulary, school readiness, and test performance. Others have found that children with poorer grades are more likely to watch violent content.35 We can only assume that in our study, viewers of one content type are balanced by viewers of other content types.

Keeping in mind the aforementioned study limitations, we would recommend that parents not allow televisions in the children’s bedrooms or remove them if they are already present. We know of no research suggesting that children benefit from having a bedroom television while other evidence31,36 shows that children who have bedroom televisions are at greater risk for being overweight and having trouble sleeping. Our results add worse performance on standardized tests to the list of adverse risks associated with having a bedroom television. Realistically, parents cannot easily oversee their children’s television use if the television set is in the child’s bedroom. Besides our positive findings about computer use and academic performance, others report that computers can increase communication between friends and family37 and facilitate access to academic and health information through the Internet.38 With the reduced costs of this technology and our study’s findings, we would support parents bringing computers into their homes and allowing their children to use them.

While this research focuses on academic achievement, we know that media use can influence children in many ways. Especially with the media environment converging and becoming more complex, it will be valuable to investigate how specific media delivery systems and content influence children physically, socially, and cognitively. We recommend an obvious and practical follow-up randomized controlled study. Researchers could examine, over time and with a large sample, the impact of removing the bedroom television and/or introducing a home computer to better understand how the household media environment affects children’s healthy development.

Correspondence: Dina L. G. Borzekowski, EdD, Department of Population and Family Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 615 N Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205 (dborzeko@jhsph.edu).

Financial Disclosure: Neither author has advisory board affiliations or financial interests in organizations sponsoring the research.

Accepted for Publication: January 20, 2005.

Funding/Support: This study was supported in part by grant R01 HL62224 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md, and a Generalist Physician Faculty Scholar Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ.

Acknowledgment: We thank K. Farish Haydel, Michelle Fujimoto, and Ann Varady for assistance with data management, MelissaNichols Saphir, PhD, for study coordination, Helena C. Kraemer, PhD, for statistical advice, and Sally McCarthy and Connie Watanabe for their administrative assistance throughout the study. We are also indebted to the students, parents, teachers, and administrators of all the schools that participated in this study.

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Figures

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Figure 1.

Average test scores for each bedroom television (TV) status. Alphabetic pairings in each test type indicate significant differences (P<.05) between average test scores for media statuses.

Graphic Jump Location
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Figure 2.

Average test scores for each home computer access status. Alphabetic pairings in each test type indicate significant differences (P<.05) between average test scores for media statuses.

Graphic Jump Location
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Figure 3.

Predicted test scores, based on students’ estimates and parents’ estimates, for students with and without a bedroom television (Bed TV) and with and without home computer (Comp) access.

Graphic Jump Location

Tables

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Parent and Student Reports of Students’ Time Spent With Media, Reading, and Doing Homework, Using Spring 2000 Data
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Parameter Estimates and Regression Models Predicting Grade 3 Academic Achievement

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