VoxEU Column Education

More time spent on television and video games, less time spent on studying?

Parents worry that their children waste too many hours playing video games or watching TV that would be better spent studying. Whereas past research has focused on teenagers, this column presents evidence on the causal effects of study and leisure hours for children of elementary school age, when key lifetime habits are being developed. Video entertainment is found to be a less significant determinant of time spent studying than parental involvement (such as supervision).

Many parents believe that TV and video games are ‘idiot boxes’ that rot their children’s minds and crowd out study time. We agree with this general perception, but add the caveat that less time spent on TV or video games does not automatically lead to more time spent on studying. It is easy to detect the correlation but harder to determine causality. If a causal effect is misattributed, keeping children away from idiot boxes and forcing them to their desks may be simply a waste of effort.

We present a question in which every parent may be desperately interested: is eliminating TV and video games a good parenting strategy to boost a child’s number of study hours? Is there a trade-off between the time spent on studying and that on TV or video games? These questions may be important not only for parents of school-aged children but also for the central and local government and school districts that design school hours under a in the face of a widening disparity in economic, cultural, and social capitals across households.

Before discussing the trade-off between video entertainment and study time, we need to confirm one important thing: is the amount of time allocated to studying correlated with higher academic achievement? Although proving the causal relationship between time spent studying and academic achievement is difficult because of unobserved parental and child characteristics (such as parental enthusiasm to their children’s education or the child’s motivation to study), recent economic studies have given us a straightforward answer: yes, the more hours dedicated to studying, the higher the level of academic achievement. Research has been successful in isolating the pure effects of students’ efforts on their achievements and answering the causal question of whether the efforts measured by the time spent on studying truly matters (Stinebrickner & Stinebrickner 2008, Shinogaya and Akabayashi 2011, Kawaguchi 2013).

For example, Stinebrickner and Stinebrickner (2008) utilised a random selection of roommates from a student dorm who bought video games, an activity that potentially reduces the time spent on studying, and revealed that the time spent on studying significantly affected their achievements at college. Given this finding, there has been growing interest in investigating the determinants of the time spent on studying, although there are few existing studies. Similarly, Ward (2012) concluded that each additional hour of playing video games resulted in 8.4 minutes less time spent on studying.

Although previous research examined teenagers, our paper focuses on early elementary school children: the age group which spends the most time on TV and video games.1 2 Numerous studies have found that skills observed at an early age are strong predictors of outcomes in later life, such as educational attainment, labour-market success, and adolescent social behaviors (e.g., Cameron & Heckman 1998, 2001, Heckman, Stixrud, and Urzua 2006).

To implement empirical examination, we used the panel data drawn from the Longitudinal Survey of Babies in 21st Century, which was organised into 10 waves and collected by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare between 2001 (Wave 1) and 2011 (Wave 10). This survey targeted all 53,575 babies born in Japan during 10-17 January 2001 and 10-17 July 2001, indicating that the subjects in these waves had reached school age (G4) at the time of the latest survey. The prominent feature of this survey is the information obtained on the time a child engages in a specific type of activity in a typical day. We outline a basic education production function to characterise the trade-off between time spent on studying and that on alternative activities such as watching TV or playing video games.

As mentioned earlier, the observed differences in the number of hours watching TV or playing video games may simply reflect differences in the amount of time that parents permit their children to spend on them, or in the level of children’s motivation to study. These unobserved parental and child characteristics may be associated with both the children’s time spent on studying and that on TV or video games. To deal with this potential endogeneity, we tested several empirical specifications, and find robust evidence for the negative causal relationship between time spent on television or video games and that on studying among early elementary school children.

However, the effect size is nearly negligible: each additional hour spent watching TV and playing video games leads to a reduction of 1.86 and 2.70 minutes maximum in time spent on studying for boys and girls, respectively. In absolute terms, video games have a greater effect than TV, although the effect size is still smaller than the estimates drawn from teenagers’ data in the US. Family structure and parental employment status are not associated with a child’s time spent on studying, implying that the presence of the responsible caregivers observing a child’s activities and the amount of time parents spend at home do not significantly alter a child’s time spent studying, nor their attitude toward or enthusiasm for studying.

So what are the crucial determinants of the time spent on studying? Our results suggest that, once parents clearly demonstrate and communicate their commitment to their children’s studying, the child will substantially increase the time spent on studying. How is this accomplished? Watching over the child while studying is more important than simply telling him or her to do so. Furthermore, the effect size is largest when mothers force their child to adhere to set study times and when fathers watch over their child while studying. Mothers who tell their daughters to study are unsuccessful in making them spend more time studying; rather, it demotivates them. Second, fathers’ commitment is more effective for boys while mothers’ commitment is for girls, implying that parental commitment is more likely to reap benefits in same-gender parent-child relationships.

Our research suggests several policy implications.

  • First, schools should provide after-school programs which offer sacrificial and time-consuming commitments, such as watching over children while studying and ensuring that children adhere to a set study time, as a substitute for parents.

Since our dataset includes information on the commitment to the child’s studying from ‘others’ (such as relatives or nannies ) rather than parents within the household, we show that there is no effective statistical difference of others’ commitments and parental commitments. Another piece of evidence clarifies that supplementary education, such as cramming school or private tutoring, has a significant positive effect on time spent on studying. Perhaps supplementary education also plays a role as a substitute for parents who persistently make commitments to their children’s studying.

  • Second, the government and school districts should be careful in reducing the number of school hours.

When public schools in Japan made a full-transition to a five-day school week in the 2002 school year, high-income parents had already increased supplementary education expenses before this transition and continued to do so after (Takeuchi et al 2006). Kawaguchi (2013) demonstrated that this transition affected student achievement and the hours spent on studying heterogeneously, depending on parental socioeconomic status. Since our finding is that parental commitments to their children’s studying makes a difference, reducing the number of school hours may translate into widening the disparity in the number of hours spent on studying and may place children from low-income families at a significant disadvantage in developing good study habits at home. This mechanism is also analysed in Matsuoka, et al. (2013).

Editor's Note: The main research on which this column is based (Matsuoka, Nakamuro, and Inui 2013 ) first appeared as a Discussion Paper of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) of Japan.


Cameron, S V and J J Heckman (1998), “Life Cycle Schooling and Dynamic Selection Bias: Models and Evidence for Five Cohorts of American Males,” Journal of Political Economy, 106 (2), 262–333.

Cameron, S V and J J Heckman (2001), “The Dynamics of Educational Attainment for Black, Hispanic and White Males,” Journal of Political Economy, 109 (3), 455–499.

Heckman J, J Stixrud, and S Urzua (2006), “The Effects of Cognitive and Noncognitive Abilities on Labor Market Outcomes and Social Behavior,” Journal of Labor Economics, 24 (3), 411–482.

Kawaguchi, D (2013), “Fewer school days, more inequality,” Hitotsubashi University Global COE Hi-Stat Discussion Paper Series, No. 271.

Matsuoka R, M Nakamuro & T Inui (2013), “Widening educational disparities outside of school: A longitudinal study of parental involvement and early elementary schoolchildren's learning time in Japan”, RIETI Discussion Paper, 13-E-095

Nakamuro M, T Inui, W Senoh and T Hiromatsu (in press), “Are TV and video games really harmful for kids?” Contemporary Economic Policy.

Shinogaya, K and H Akabayashi (2011), “Katei haikei ga gakuryoku ni ataeru eikyou to sono purosesu – kaisou teki juukaiki bunseki to kouzou houteishiki moderingu wo mochiita kentou [The effect and the process of how family backgrounds affect student achievement – empirical examination using hierarchical multiple regression analysis and structural equation modeling],” Panel Data Research Center at Keio University Discussion Paper Series, DP-2011-010.

Stinebrickner, R and T R Stinebrickner (2008), “The Causal Effect of Studying on Academic Performance,” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 8(1), 1–55.

Takeuchi M, M Nakatani and H Matsushige, “Gakkou shuu 5 hiseidounyuuni tomonau hoshuukyouikuhi no henka [The change in expenses of supplementary education during the full-transition to a five-day school week],” Kakeikeizai kenkyuu, 69, 39-47.

Ward, M R (2012), “Does time spent playing video games crowd out time spent studying?” Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2061726.

1 According to the dataset used in our empirical study, on average, children spend less than an hour a day studying, whereas they watch TV for approximately two hours and play video games for an hour a day.

2 Nakamuro et al. (in press) used the same dataset as this study and examined the relationship between the hours spent watching TV or playing video games and children’s development, such as problem behavior, orientation to school, and obesity. The empirical analysis suggested that TV or video games negatively affect children’s development, although the effect is negligible.

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