Critique of Bryan Caplan's book & TV Watching

Hi Dr. Laura,

Just wondering if you have seen this WSJ article:

I'm wondering especially about the TV time thing, I know there is evidence that suggests tv is bad for my guys! But I just am afraid of becoming a "helicopter parent" sometimes! Thanks!

Dear Judy,

Bryan Caplan is an economist, not a psychologist. He relies on old twin studies to justify his parenting theories. There are many rebuttals to those studies. One entertaining book that covers these is They F*** You Up by Oliver James. Here's a more scholarly article that sums up some of the criticism:

Is he partly right? Of course. We know that genetics has a huge influence, for instance on IQ. But that is a far cry from concluding that "parents don't matter"!

Scientists agree that early parenting has a huge impact on brain development, mood, the ability to control one's behavior, moral development, etc. We have learned recently that many genes seem to depend on the environment to be triggered, meaning that nurture determines how nature is expressed. And we are also learning that experiences in utero have a much bigger effect than we thought.

So there is much disagreement in the scientific community with the idea proposed by Byran that parents have little or no effect. Judith Harris published a controversial book on this maybe a decade ago; I loved the book because she's such an entertaining writer but her conclusions were easy to refute. In this case, I would say that Caplan is NOT as serious a scientist as Harris, he is exaggerating for effect, playing up his neglectful parenting to sell his book. I'm betting he did not let his kids watch x-rated movies or stay up all night or whatever. I'm betting he has tried to be a good father. He takes his kids to the pool and plays dodgeball with them in the basement, and he enjoys them enough that he wanted a third child.

Of course there's something very appealing to his nostalgic portrait of childraising. Kids watching cartoons while parents enjoy a glass of wine. Which brings us to your question about TV.

Many adults in the US fondly remember watching cartoons as youngsters. Did it make us violent? Of course not. That's cartoon violence, not real violence. It's funny, right?

Maybe. But the cartoons of today aren't necessarily harmless. Neither are the movies and programs made expressly for children. The average G-rated kids' movie contains about 50% more violence than one made in 1940. Now, a research team at the University of Washington in Seattle has found that four year olds who watched 3.5 hours of TV per day were 25% more likely to exhibit cruelty and meanness to others (as reported by their mothers) between ages 6 and 11 than those who watched none. That's a far-reaching, big effect.

And children who watched eight hours of television a day were 200% more likely to become bullies. Now, it isn't surprising that kids who watched eight hours of TV had problems. What kind of parenting is going on in a house where a four year old watches eight hours of TV daily? But 3 1/2 hours was the average amount of television watched daily by all the kids in the study, and if you add up early morning, afternoon and a show before bed, you get to three hours pretty quickly. And those kids had a 25% greater chance of becoming meaner.

Frederick Zimmerman, the leader of the team, said that while previous studies have linked television to aggressive behavior in older children and adolescents, this is the first time the association has been firmly established for four-year-olds. "What I suspect is these violent animated shows are causing kids to become de-sensitised to violence," Zimmerman told New "Parents should understand that, just because a TV show or movie is made for kids, it doesn't mean it's good for kids -- especially four-year-olds."

He suggests that parents follow guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no television for children under two and no more than two hours a day for older kids. "We have added bullying to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing, along with obesity, inattention, and other types of aggression," wrote the authors in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

According to New, Zimmerman's team also found that children whose parents regularly exposed them to ideas by reading aloud, eating meals together, or taking them to museums, for example, were a third less likely to become bullies. Which leads to the question of whether the problem Is TV, or the kind of parent who doesn't read to the child or offer him emotional support and parks him in front of the television? But Zimmerman says that because the effects of cognitive stimulation, emotional support and television viewing can be teased apart and examined separately, "Each of these things has an independent effect. So parents who are not going to read to their children AND who put their kids in front of the TV represent a double whammy" for their children's chances of becoming bullies.

So that's just one study. There are thousands more reliable, peer-reviewed studies on this. TV lowers academic performance, is associated with earlier sexual activity, earlier drug/alcohol use, sexism, racism.....For more info, see my article on Why TV Undermines Academics & Values.

So why did Caplan's book get published? Because it's controversial (meaning lots of folks disagree with it) so it will get media attention and books that get media attention sell well. Caplan is a good dad after all -- he's trying to earn enough to send three kids to college!

Enjoy your little guys!
Dr. Laura

Journal references: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (vol 159, p 384) New

AHA! Parenting Magazine
Free weekly inspiration in your inbox Dr. Laura's Parenting Tips
Peaceful Parent Happy Kids Online Course
Peaceful Parent Happy Kids Online Course
  • 12 weeks of practical support & tools
  • Live Group Call with Dr. Laura
  • 60 audio inspirations & Private FB group

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

Peaceful Parent,
Happy Kids Workbook

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings



Your philosophies are the only tools we've come across which offer practical advice grounded in clearly laid out lay terminology. Our family life day-to-day is nothing short of a miracle, thanks to you! - Dana Questad