Parents have for years rationed the amount of television their children can watch in the belief that too much will scramble their offspring’s brains.
Now a study suggests the opposite is true – that children who are glued to the screen for hours a day can significantly outperform classmates who watch considerably less.
It also found that other family rules imposed by parents hoping to boost their children’s academic prowess, such as insisting on regular bed or meal times, make only a relatively small difference.
The report’s lead author, Dr Alice Sullivan, Senior Academic at the university’s Institute of Education, admitted the results, particularly those regarding television, were ‘contrary to expectations’.
She added that the educational value of children’s television had been ‘underestimated’. “It may also help expose some children to a broader vocabulary than they get at home,” Dr Sullivan said.
Their findings were part of an analysis that set out to examine claims made by politicians, including David Cameron, and others that parenting skills were more important than social background in determining how well children do at school and in later life.
It used test results for 11,000 British seven-year-olds tracked since birth as part of a long-term project called the Millennium Cohort Study.
In tests comparing youngsters of the same social class, regular meal times conferred only a six-week advantage in terms of reading and writing skills, while set bedtimes gave only a two-month head start.
Overall, the analysis, published in the journal, Sociology, concluded ‘social class and in particular parents’ education were the dominant factors’ in determining how well children fared.
It found those with parents in stable, well-paid jobs were more than a year ahead than those whose parents work in unskilled or semi-skilled positions.
Recently, Professor Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, said: “Parents’ intuition will tell them there are better things to be doing than sitting in front of a screen”.
Literacy specialist, Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, said: “If TV becomes the default activity for young children, they are less likely to become rounded individuals”.