The socio-economic status of families plays an important role in shaping parenting behavior and children’s activities. Research shows, for example, that parents with higher socio-economic status spend more time reading to children whereas children from lower socio-economic backgrounds watch more television. These differences in so-called high-brow and low-brow activities are often cited as one of the reasons underlying the disadvantages in academic achievement and educational attainment observed for children from families with lower socio-economic status. Nonetheless, the immediate consequences of these activities, particularly of watching television, for children’s cognitive and behavioral development are still the subject of controversial scientific and public debate.
In this paper, we used data on children living in Scotland and born between June 2004 and May 2005 to address three questions: (1) Are there differences in the growth of children’s weekly television consumption from age two to age four depending on their parents’ education? (2) Is early television consumption associated with differences in vocabulary, reasoning ability, and behavioral problems at age 5? (3) Does this association differ by parents’ education?
Our analyses showed that television consumption was indeed higher for children of parents with lower education and also grew faster over time. But in the sample under study, we found no associations of television consumption with cognitive and language development and only very small ones with conduct problems and prosocial behavior. These associations with behavior were slightly larger for children whose parents attained lower secondary education or less. Given that we were able to account for many important drivers of both television consumption and child development, these results suggest that the impact of TV consumption on children’s development is less pronounced than often assumed and may not play a major role in explaining socio-economic differences in children’s academic achievement and educational attainment.