Television and its Impact on Black Achievement

Is TV watching contributing to the achievement gap?

RL Booker, Jr.​

Today, there is an achievement gap between blacks and the rest of the ethnic groups in America. There are many reasons that attribute to the achievement and educational attainment gaps. There are many groups, scholars, agencies and educators who are working diligently to reduce and or eliminate the problem. One of the problems may be the television and how much it is watched and its placement in black households. Rightly or wrongly television is the most used platform for educational content. Income also is a determinant on whom watches television with lower income families watching more than higher income households (Common Sense Media, 2013). Why is this happening and what can be done to either lessen the negative qualities of television usage or accentuate the positives? If this issue is not addressed, then we will continue to lose ground in the fight to raise black student achievement, which has much broader implications than just education.

There has been research on the impact of television, computer usage, video games and particular television shows on achievement and behavior. Although such research exists, a direct correlation between television watching and black achievement has not been proven. The only measures that came through forcefully are that low-income black children watch more television than any other racial and ethnic group. Why should television watching be so prevalent in one ethnic group? Less television watching seems to lead to more educational attainment. Is watching television something that blacks do or is it more nuanced than this?

Researchers and authors discussed ADHD and how it can come about by watching television. What also became increasingly disturbing was how television impacts children’s pro-social behavior. Parents address this behavior in a positive manner when their children are infants by having them watch television shows like Baby Einstein.

Why is the study of television watching important to me or to anyone for that matter? It is important because there is some educational value that can be gained in watching educational programs for instance like Disney’s Doc McStuffins, Dora, The Explorer and Sesame Street for example but more often or not television is not used in this manner. My intent is to touch the surface on the role that television has had and is having on black students achievement. Parents need to understand they need to monitor not only the programs but also the hours their children watch television. The one constant throughout all of the material was that black families and students watched or had the television on in their homes more than any other ethnic group.

In education we always look for opportunities to improve learning techniques for students. This study and topic may seem trivial but with the proliferation of single parent households and latch key children this topic of television and its impact should be studied more. Throughout all of the literature there was no one researcher that said television was an outright negative to student achievement but there was not one for the affirmative either.

 I conducted a brief survey at a former school where I taught. This is a majority-minority school with Black and Hispanic students comprising the majority of the population. The socioeconomic backgrounds ranges from low SES to middle income SES. I asked the students how many have televisions in their bedrooms and when did they recall having it put in their bedrooms? An overwhelming majority of students had a television in their bedroom, out of that majority; many had a television since they were in elementary school. The majority of those students who answered that they had televisions in the bedroom since elementary were black students. The Hispanic students mostly did not get a television in their bedrooms until they were in middle school. Research says that television in the bedroom leads to lower student achievement and black families tend to have more televisions in their children’s bedrooms. There may be a correlation to the percentage of televisions in black children’s bedrooms and the poor black achievement and educational attainment gaps. The question is, are parents aware of the harm that they may do to their children’s education?

Teachers and parents agree that media, which includes television, can have both positive and negative impacts in regards to childhood development. It seems the younger children are (0-8) the more television can be used for educational reasons. There is a difference in what types of programs that are watched and who is watching them. High SES children as well as low SES watch educational television. Higher SES children tend to use games and software rather than utilize television as a mode for learning. In The Zero To Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013 Research Study), the researchers defined lower income as families earning less than $30,000 a year; “middle income” includes those earning $30-75,000 a year (according to the U.S. Census, median household in 2013 is $51,017) (p.13). Television still dominates in regards in the type of media that is consumed by children. 58 percent watch television programs at least once a day. Low SES families tend to be more dependent on over the air television compared to high SES who use cable and satellite more.

Children aged 2 to 4 years old watch the most educational television than at any other time in their childhood. In their study, Common Sense (2013) found a myriad of reasons that families had placed televisions in their children’s bedrooms. The reasons given ranged from freeing up space to keeping the children occupied. What is interesting is in regards to race; regardless of income level blacks watch or keep television on as background noise even while it is not utilized by anyone in the household. The percentage of black families who kept their televisions on compared to white and Hispanic families is quite troubling when including all income levels. Blacks were at 56 percent, Hispanics at 40 percent and whites at 33 percent Interestingly at the low SES levels all races were virtually the same with whites and Hispanic at 46 percent and blacks at 45 percent.

Does television keep students from learning? In 1980 Jerome Singer argued that television interfered with cognition and reflection and as a result children cannot process television content and therefore cannot learn from it (Kirkorian, Wartella & Anderson, 2008; Singer, 1980). In their study Kirkorian, concentrated their research on the media’s impact on children’s cognitive development and achievement. When children began to watch television at an early age it retards their development. The question to parents is; why would you want to place your children at a disadvantage when they may not ever catch up to their peers? Black parents especially should be warned about the dangers of television because of the achievement gaps particularly with boys.

Television does not allow young children’s minds (0-2) to grasp what they are watching. Therefore is the content that is being delivered to the children beneficial? Research shows that children do not begin to grasp what they watch until preschool age. Because black families more than any other ethnic group have their televisions on throughout the day, may explain why there is such a large achievement gap. Low-income students watch more television than high-income students and they also score lower on their standardized achievement exams.

When children watch educational television, there are some attributes that provide positives in pro-social behavior that cannot be dismissed. If students watch violent cartoons more than educational programs this oftentimes leads to a more aggressive and disruptive student. Today, with so many families allowing the television to act as a babysitter, this is dangerous and detrimental to the child. If the parent does not monitor what is being seen, what can be done to help guide the children away from violent programming and to more educational?

Is television the tool for education or is it one of many instruments that inhibit the growth of children? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made recommendations on television usage. Television has been used as a babysitter for some parents but in the Common Sense Study, some use it as a sleep aid. According to John and Weller (2011), a television in the bedroom contributes to sleep disturbance, attention problems and aggressive behavior (p.123-124). Children as young as five years old show the impact of bedroom television with the development of sleep problems. What is significant about sleep deprivation? If a child is hungry, there is very little learning occurring because that student is more focused on eating. If we do not expect a student to learn due to hunger then we should not expect a student who is sleep deprived to learn either.

Television or too much television watching can lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavior problems. Though it is not addressed in their (AAP) study but could this be one of many factors that are contributing to problems black students face in regards to discipline, cognitive development and comprehension in the classroom? Television usage of over two hours a day can lead to problems such as emotional and social problems. With the average black family having or watching the television on 2.1 hours or more daily should be a cause for alarm. This is putting the children in these families at a social and educational disadvantage that they may never recover from.

The AAP has made recommendations that are practical but the applications of them are difficult. They recommend reduction of television usage, monitor what is watched and exchange educational programs for entertainment programs. This will be very difficult due to the proliferation of many latchkey children that makes up our society. Single as well as two parent households use the television as a babysitter and the number of televisions in children’s bedrooms will make these recommendations almost impossible to implement. If we know that allowing too much television contributes to ADHD, social and emotional problems then we as a society are negligent in the educating of our children.

In the minority communities, achievement levels lag behind whites and there are many reasons that this occurs. One of the challenges that make it very difficult for minority students to be successful is the disparity in income levels. There seems to be another contributor or predictor to poor academic performance and social behaviors, which is unproductive time, spent watching television. The television which is ubiquitous in American homes but more so in black homes lead to problems that are exacerbated with other problems that black students face in the classroom. It is the unsupervised time spent in other activities including television watching that is contributing to lower cognitive skills and educational attainment.

If students can be provided structure in their daily lives this will give them an opportunity to achieve. Time usage therefore should be an important component to any student’s ability to achieve academically. Higher income adolescents as well as females were more likely to engage in time use patterns dominated by school-based organized academic activities and these adolescents had higher rates of prosocial behavior (Wolf, Aber and Morris, 2015).

As I have stated earlier, it is the negative social behaviors that are causing many minority students including blacks to lose instructional time and television is partly responsible. The programming that is violent and non-educational does not contribute to any cognitive development. A successful student is one that is prepared and is motivated by personal goals and aspirations. Students who spend too much time watching television lack self-motivation that enables them to seek both academic and personal achievement. This can cause problems for any students but much more for black students whose families watch television more than any other ethnic group. (Wolf, Aber and Morris) in their 2015 study conclude that television and computer users had the lowest levels of intrinsic motivation (p.1220). There also seems to be a gender difference where females are less likely to watch and use televisions and computers unsupervised. This is significant because of its impact on better academic achievement by girls. Black girls in particular have higher academic achievement than their male counterparts. In order to switch this pattern of destruction there needs to be ways to engage black male students in structured activities that will allow them to excel. One strategy that can be tried is to limit television usage.

One of the many problems facing black students is reading and comprehension. In a study conducted by Morgan and Gross (1980) revealed that greater amounts of television watching were associated with lower reading comprehension scores among sixth through ninth graders on the high end of the IQ range (Memory, 1992). Besides ethnic difference income levels are important regarding student achievement. Because the research shows that too much television impacts students negatively there needs a change in attitude towards television usage.

It is imperative that students are exposed to watching television in a positive vein instead of strictly for entertainment purposes. Educational programs have also been shown to have raised motivation to read, increased knowledge of current events, and improved problem-solving skills in math and science among older children (Fisch, 2004; Hofferth, 2010).

Television is not an all-encompassing evil device when used in moderation. It has been shown through research that when educational programs are introduced that students of all ethnic groups academic performance is better. The problem that we have today is a societal problem that has come to rely on the television in a way it was not designed for. Because our society is so fast-paced and low income and single parent households do not have the time to monitor what their children are watching they are impacted the most. Black families more than any other ethnic groups, when all income levels are combined are impacted the most. Though there is no direct correlation to income level and television watching, families with higher income children have better academic performance and achievement.

Research shows the younger age when parents can reduce time spent watching television the greater chance of improvement in academic achievement. Another suggestion by (Witjzes et. al) More specifically, raising awareness among low educated parents of the harmful effects of placing television sets in children’s bedrooms and of their own lifestyle behaviors, television viewing in particular, may be a fruitful approach to reduce the educational gradient in television viewing time among preschool children (2012).

There must be a sea change in how television is used in our homes today, especially in our low SES and minority communities. In our society a good education is essential in having the opportunity to take care of a family. By allowing television to have the role it does in our every day lives is problematic and we must incorporate the suggestions of more educational programing usage and less watching of television if we want to change the current projection of academic achievement in all of our families especially with our black families because they are impacted the most.

Works Cited

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RL Booker, Jr. ( is the executive director of The 34 Foundation, a local nonprofit in the San Antonio metro area.

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