Getting it Exactly Wrong

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Several days ago, Rabbi Adlerstein commented regarding the deleterious effects of television, and wrote that children whose classmates were free of its influence could perceive the difference between themselves and other children even in grade school. This post has generated an extraordinary number of comments (both here and elsewhere) from writers who — whether wilfully or blindly — could not bring themselves to confront what Rabbi Adlerstein actually said. The addiction to television runs so deep that even its most obvious harm is to be ignored.

I was amused to see one writer assert that Rabbi Adlerstein surely has no knowledge of what it means to have a television, given that he is a cloistered charedi Rabbi. Anyone who has read this journal for a few weeks knows that only the latter adjective (charedi) is anywhere near accurate — and a few purists out there might quibble even with that. :) There are few people out there who cloister themselves less among friends and acquaintances with whom they agree. And, of course, the disturbing number of televisions in charedi homes also needs to be taken into account.

Only a bit better were those criticisms which said that Rabbi Adlerstein declared television-free children to be inherently more intelligent, that he failed to distinguish between “good” and “bad” television, and that he claimed that his son volunteered that he saw a difference between children without prodding, whereas, in fact, he was being prodded by his presence in the television-free “A” track.

Rabbi Adlerstein didn’t say that television reduced children’s intelligence, but that television made them an “educational drag.” The fact that very bright people achieved a higher education with televisions in their homes hardly disproves the clearly observable negative impact of the TV — which, of course, is also getting worse over time. Rabbi Adlerstein isn’t the only one to fail to differentiate between PBS and the WB — trigonometry still can’t be presented by “the Count” in five-minute segments. And finally, his son was told that he was in the Yiddish track, but was not told that he was there to be educated along with other TV-free boys. This wasn’t a matter of gratuitous separation from others (see my own comment to Marvin Schick’s post in opposition to “Kollel-Only” schools); being without television made a difference on the basketball court, and a 12-year-old could see this for himself.

I have a simple challenge. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of educators out there who have taught in middle- and high-school classrooms where the students had televisions in their homes, and also have taught in classrooms where the students did not. The fifth-grade math teacher in Bais Mikra of Monsey, for example, also taught in Ramapo public schools in the morning. This teacher (who was not Jewish, as if this were relevant) said that he was able to teach the Bais Mikra children the same material he taught in Ramapo — in half the time.

Even at the elementary-school level, teachers have reported better behavior and higher creativity in television-free classrooms, though they are less likely to finger television as the primary contributing factor. Anecdotally, one nursery-school teacher revised her evaluation of television’s impact when one child bopped another on the head, and then defended himself because Moe had done it to Curly the previous afternoon.

If you are convinced that the harm is not obvious and glaring to anyone, here’s the challenge: send me the name and phone number (and email) of any teacher of middle- or high-school students who has been in both environments, and agrees with you. You can post the information as a comment — I will not publish the comment without your permission and that of the teacher, but I will, bli neder [without a vow], contact the teacher to confirm his or her opinion. [You can also email my last name at cross-currents.com.] Neither teacher nor students need be restricted based upon gender, religion, race, national origin, political preference or shoe size.

This should be simple, right?

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14 Responses

  1. Voice of Reason says:

    Correlation does not equal causation. Right, and cigarette smoking doesn’t pose health risks (since we only have data from correlational studies, you see).

    You’re right, of course, Sholom, that there might be something else contributing to the difference, but, like with smoking, once the correlation gets to a certain point, reasonable people draw conclusions and make prudent decisions, with their lives and with the raising of their children.

    Do your kids a favor – unplug to television.

  2. Ben-David says:

    Those who posit that other factors in the religious/chareidi life produce the difference in middos must face the even larger body of evidence that comes from the general population. In his book on child rearing – which sparked this debate in many circles, including our own – Rabbi Kellerman quotes as his primary evidence a study of an entire town on the Canadian border, tracing its rates of criminal behavior and misdemeanors as TV was introduced.

    These people were obviously not chareidi. And this is just one example of mounting evidence that television impacts everything from attention span, to the balance between verbal/emotional and rational/linguistic modes of brain function, to assumed social norms of behavior.

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    Sholom,

    True, correlation does not imply (much less prove) causation. But you haven’t addressed your own ability to prove it (and please forgive me for putting this to you directly, but in this context third-person would be difficult to express). I suggest a trivial experiment: unless your home was the one in your neighborhood without a television, I suggest you ban yours for a week and see what happens. You can conduct an experiment in cause and effect, as many other families have in the past.

    The TV-free club is open to all! No cost or obligation! [Except, of course, the need to find other ways to entertain yourself and the kids.]

    Please take my earlier challenge seriously as well, and discuss this with teachers who have worked in both environments. Devoted teachers are very perceptive about the various influences upon their students. They would not point randomly at the TV while ignoring everything else.

    You’re absolutely right — there could be some mysterious factor at work that makes those kids more prone to use violence and profanity, more prone to obesity, more into movies and less into both learning and physical activity, with the TV being merely a coincidence. [It is also true that other factors can overwhelm the presence or absence of a television, such that you’ll have a well-mannered, studious child from a house with a television and the opposite from a home without one.]

    Nonetheless, teachers agree that the television-free classrooms constitute an “A” track over the classes of children with televisions — and will point to television rather than any other factor as the salient distinction. It is, in many cases, the sole distinction between two otherwise similar families that attend similar synagogues and social activities. If there is another factor, it cannot be found — and, in any case, you would be hard-pressed to explain why it coincidentally vanishes along with the television when we see the change in children within one family.

    It isn’t smug to suggest that cigarettes cause cancer. It’s no more smug to suggest that TV is a damaging influence, since it can be measured just as easily.

    Most importantly, since removing the television is something that everyone can do, there is nothing smug or self-congratulatory about the group identification, Kar’s comments notwithstanding. Actually, an “A” track on an academic basis and participation in varsity sports are much more open to condemnation on this basis of imbuing students (and adults) with smug self-satisfaction, as innate talent clearly plays a role — yet no one suggest we do away with them.

    Going without a television on the other hand, is open to all as I said earlier. It requires nothing more than a bit of creativity finding other ways to spend time. The intent of Rav Adlerstein’s article, and mine, was not to get all the TV-free parents to pat each other on the back, but to encourage others to join the club.

  4. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that public television’s undisputed profanity and vulgarity can be harmful to spiritual growth. Would it then be smug to presume that children raised watching television are more likely to be more profane and vulgar and spiritually stunted? Like all presumptions about groups of people, it would be less than completely true. But, more importantly, it would not be completely false.

    We don’t have a television, but watch videos. I regret that weakness, and, thank God, it doesn’t seem to have caused too much damage. But if, God forbid, it had, I know I would have been liable for the results of such irresponsible, even criminally negligent, parenting. And I have the right to think the same about parents who have kept their televisions.

  5. Sholom Simon says:

    R Menken wrote: “Sholom, while it may be appropriate to compare the behavior standards of chareidi children with non-chareidi children when both watch television, as you did…”

    I don’t think you understand what I was writing. First off, my comparison was an example attempting to illustrate my main point: which is that correlation does not imply causation.

    You continue: “… the discussion here focuses upon charedi children, the primary distinguishing factor between the two groups being television usage.”

    Fine. But how do you know that’s the primary distinguishing factor? You certainly can’t by asking their teachers who may have little to no insight into their home life. To repeat yet again, perhaps there is *some other* factor involved, and tv usage is a symptom of that other factor. (In fact, we _know_ that there are some other factors, since, clearly, home are not radomly assigned TV’s, but, rather, families self-select into the category of “TV” or “not TV”. It is this “self-selection” problem which is difficult to separate out.).

    Let me try another example: do drug treatment programs work? The problem, just like the TV, is that people aren’t randomly assigned into a program or not — but people self-select into the program. And so the very trait which might cause a person to want to get help and into a program (say, e.g., self-initiative) may very well cause (or be a factor) in his success.

    Correlation does not prove causation.

    My premise again: you can not simply gather 100 charedi children, differentiate solely on tv usage, make a valid comparison, and explain all differences as the result of a presence of the TV. It’s just not that simple.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Sholom, while it may be appropriate to compare the behavior standards of chareidi children with non-chareidi children when both watch television, as you did, the discussion here focuses upon charedi children, the primary distinguishing factor between the two groups being television usage. In Rabbi Adlerstein’s case the children attended the same school, while in other cities you can find charedi schools where parents are literally asked to sign a form stating that they do not possess a TV, or at least where TV-ownership is strongly discouraged, while other charedi schools have no such restriction.

    It is Rabbi Adlerstein’s assertion — and mine — that the difference is measurable and even obvious. A few anecdotes to the contrary (Rochelle Krich’s, for example) do not contradict this — get this from a teacher who has had the opportunity to observe for him- or herself.

    Kar, no one is being smug. You are misreading Rabbi Adlerstein so badly as to lead one to suspect a deliberate attempt to create a strawman. You referred to “parents [who] think of the other kids as less spiritually rarified (and not because of the tv, but generally).” No such parents existed in his article, nor did Rabbi Adlerstein merely use TV as a “barometer”.

    On the contrary, it was the TV that, in his essay, created the less spiritually-rarified environment. A typical evening of televised entertainment is a lesson in the creative use of improper speech and inappropriate dress and behavior, all accompanied by a laugh track. It is as if certain homes had raw sewage running through their living rooms, and you were to assert that those who smelled the stench were merely elitists who used the sewage line as a “barometer” of whether the family had body odor.

    It’s simply not so. No one was making value judgements about other families in general. Any home has the opportunity to divert the sewage line away — and more than a few have done so to positive effect. It’s neither “self-aggrandizement” nor “triumphalism” to encourage others to make that positive move.

  7. Rochelle Krich says:

    I agree that there is much on TV that is appalling, and increasingly less of anything that has value. But I disagree that children raised in homes without TVs have better midos than those who grow up in homes that have TVs. I have heard numerous first-hand accounts from classmates and teachers dismayed by the rudeness and uncivil classroom and schoolyard behavior of students who don’t have TVs and show a disregard for anything–and anyone–secular. One of the primary problems in the day schools my children attended was finding and holding on to teachers who would tolerate these students’ insufferable this-isn’t-Torah-so-it’s-not-important attitude.

  8. kar says:

    “I have a simple challenge. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of educators out there who have taught in middle- and high-school classrooms where the students had televisions in their homes, and also have taught in classrooms where the students did not. The fifth-grade math teacher in Bais Mikra of Monsey, for example, also taught in Ramapo public schools in the morning. This teacher (who was not Jewish, as if this were relevant) said that he was able to teach the Bais Mikra children the same material he taught in Ramapo—in half the time.”

    All of this can be true, but if people view themselves as “better” or more “spiritually rarified” than others, they are not succeeding in the “spirituality” department. Homes w/ tvs have the problems you identify, and that’s why I wouldn’t have a tv. But homes like the ones R Adlerstein describes have big problems too – smug self-congratulation based on which group you identify with. It’s one thing to stay away from tv and think your kids are better off for it. It’s quite another to think that your general environment is so much spiritual than anyone else’s and pass that attitude on to your kids.

    Cross currents is very full of this sort of triumphalism and this attitude …it goes before a fall, they say.

  9. kar says:

    “and finally, his son was told that he was in the Yiddish track, but was not told that he was there to be educated along with other TV-free boys.”

    This is what R Adlerstein wrote:

    “On the other hand, there was pressure to segregate the kids from the “better” homes (i.e. ones without TV) so that they could achieve more of their potential without being subject to the educational drag of children from less spiritually rarified families. (The assumption was a gross generalization, but it harbored a good deal of truth.)”

    What I wrote is that if the parents think of the other kids as less spiritually rarified (and not because of the tv, but generally) that attitude rubs off, and I stand by that. Kids don’t have to be told that in so many words; I doubt R Adlerstein himself heard the two tracks described in these words before he wrote the comment; in fact, he’s saying that the tv was just a useful barometer of how observant the kids were.

    My comment was as an opponent of tv. I’m simply saying that it’s not good to role model smugness. It’s one thing to identify those who are less observant; it’s quite another to think of them as “less spiritually rarified.” Self aggrandizement is not spiritually rarified.

  10. joel rich says:

    and of course you have to define better. Lhavdil, in the 80’s everyone thought Japan would rule the world because they were “better” at groupthink while the US was a bunch of cowboys. Turns out maybe you need some cowboys.
    KT
    Joel Rich

  11. Sholom Simon says:

    Sorry — I don’t think this is anywhere near as simple as you make it out to be. The problem is confusing *correlation* with *cause and effect*.

    To put it simply: We already know that chareidi families generally don’t have TV’s. Perhaps there is *something else* in chareidi life that produces, e.g., better behaved children.

    In other words, consider this thought experiment: pretend TV’s had never been invented. In such a universe, compare chareidi children with non-chareidi children. Is there a difference? If there is, then, switching back to real-life, perhaps TV’s aren’t the difference.

    Let me give an example. When my son was five years old, we had a birthday party for him, and we invited about 9-10 other 5 year old boys. All except one had a TV. So let’s just look at the remainder. Of the remainder, the ones that were Orthodox were better behaved than the ones who weren’t. (It was startlingly obvious). TV had nothing to do with it.

    The point, again, is this: the very factors which cause a family to be chareidi, the very factors which cause a family to reject TV, and the values that that family already has, may be what produces better children, independent of the TV.

    Another example: self-esteem and popularity in high school are highly correlated. Does self-esteem help with popularity? Or is it the other way around? Or are both caused by something else (such as academic and/or athletic achievement)?

    Bottom line: Jewish children that have no TV’s may be better then those who have TV’s, and it may be highly correlated. But to go from correlation to cause-and-effect is a large leap. And making phone calls to ask teachers is not going to prove very much.

    Please don’t get me wrong — I am *not* arguing that there is no effect. But I am arguing that simple observations and anecdotes don’t prove much. That’s why sociological research is a specialized field, after all. (Now, if you want to talk about designing a methodological study . . . my wife who is in that field could probably help!)

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    I thought some more about it, and I think that while it is easy to benefit from television in elementary school age, it is a lot harder to do so as a teenager. Maybe the difference is that teenagers don’t need things to be concrete the way that elementary school children do. Or maybe it’s that nobody figured out how to do a good TV show for that age group yet.

  13. Ori Pomerantz says:

    RYM: —which, of course, is also getting worse over time. Rabbi Adlerstein isn’t the only one to fail to differentiate between PBS and the WB —trigonometry still can’t be presented by “the Count” in five-minute segments.

    True. Television is not the right tool to teach high school mathematics. Teenagers have the ability to form abstractions. However, that’s like saying my car is bad because I can’t use it to fly.

    Television is useful in teaching toddlers, who need things to be very concrete. My son is not even three, and he already knows his upper case letters, mostly thanks to the leap pad videos. I know that’s the source because he tells me about letters along with the animations used by leap pad (C is cold, L is for lollipop, etc.).

    In my case, my love of history started, as far as I can tell, with Hayo Haya (once upon a time, see http://www.procidis.com/gb/series/series_fois/homme.htm ), which I watched in elementary school when I was still too young to read history books.

    RYM: here’s the challenge: send me the name and phone number (and email) of any teacher of middle- or high-school students who has been in both environments, and agrees with you.

    I admit, I can’t do that. I suspect that either television is counter productive at that age, or we still haven’t discovered how to use it properly. Maybe only let teenagers watch TV in a foreign language as a way to review it (I had that with English, growing up in Israel).

  14. Yvonne says:

    Roman Catholic here. After going a life time of taking the smart alec ways of children for granted, my husband and I have had a sudden revelation in recent years about children. This revelation has come about from friendships that we’ve formed with Chareidi families who’ve invited us to join them at their Shabbat tables.

    The difference is marked . . . mmm . . . “Marked” is too mild of a word. Dramatic and startling–these words describe the difference we’ve noted in the behavior of the children of our Chareidi friends. They have NO concept of giving lip to parents. With these children, there’s no invisible camera ready to capture their ain’t-I-the-cutest one liner, no giggle track to confirm that they’re the star of the show. The Chareidi children just simply engage in straight-forward conversations with adults. Since they are truly a delight to talk to, it’s conceivable they receive more adult attention in the long run than kids who’ve picked up bratty ways from television.

    The experiences with our friends prompted my husband and me to try to consider the reason for the difference–yeshiva schooling, a family setting imbued with kedusha? In our Christian experience, both Catholic and Protestant Evangelical, we have friends who also have strong religious commitment, but the children are not quite like the Chareidi ones. We settled upon a more mundane explanation–no TV. Even the nicest children who are in families where their TV watching is monitored just have a certain edge that is missing in the Chareidi children we’ve come to know. I’ve come to agree with the notion that TV’s influence on the behavior of children is perhaps worst at its most subtle.