Racial differences in television watching, family context and reading achievement

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Wyatt, Lisa Marcel

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The question of whether television helps or hinders student’s reading performance has been debated since the medium was introduced with a substantial body of research reporting a negative relationship. Previous studies that have examined television watching and reading achievement generally have had at least one of the following limitations: (1) small or otherwise unrepresentative sample; (2) has been cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal; (3) failure to consider the family context in which television occurs. This study was designed to overcome these deficiencies by using nationally representative data from National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988-1990 (NELS:88-90). These surveys included a sample of 18,706 African American and White students who were studied both as eighth graders (1988) and about two years later as tenth graders (1990). Cross-sectional analyses revealed that the patterns of associations between predictors and television watching are not similar among African American and White students. Despite variation in time spent watching television among African American students, the predictors used were less useful in explaining individual differences for this group than they were for White students. Cross-sectional analyses considering the relationship between the amount of television watched and reading achievement found that the amount of television hours watched is almost always not significantly associated with reading test scores for African American students and almost always associated with reading test scores for White students. When longitudinal controls are added, however, the relationship between amount of television watched and reading achievement for both African American and White students were statistically insignificant. There seems to be almost a working assumption by researchers and the public that television impairs the development of reading skills. The cross-sectional analysis generated by my analyses replicate the findings of previous research efforts for White students only. It is clear that upon closer inspection, by implementing a more rigorous specification of the conditions and mechanisms that play a role in this relationship, the finding of no association longer seem compelling. The findings from this study add to our understanding of adolescent’s television watching and its relationship to academic achievement.