Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Reason to Turn Off the TV

Halfway through Levitt & Dubner’s Super Freakonomics, the bestselling sequel to Freakonomics, the authors search for an explanation for the explosive growth in crime during the 1960’s.
By 1960, the crime rate was 50 percent higher than it had been in 1950; by 1970, the rate had quadrupled. Why? [snip]

One major factor was the criminal-justice system itself. The ratio of arrests per crime fell dramatically during the 1960s, for both property and violent crime. But not only were the police catching a smaller share of the criminals; the courts were less likely to lock up those who were caught. In 1970, a criminal could expect to spend an astonishing 60 percent less time behind bars than he would have for the same crime committed a decade earlier. Overall, the decrease in punishment during the 1970s seems to be responsible for roughly 30 percent of the rise in crime.

The postwar baby boom was another factor. Between 1960 and 1980, the fraction of the U.S. population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four rose by nearly 40 percent, an unprecedented surge in the age group most at risk for criminal involvement. But even such a radical demographic shift can only account for about 10 percent of the increase in crime.

So together, the baby boom and the declining rate of imprisonment explain less than half the crime spike. [snip] Decades later, most criminologists remain perplexed.
Levitt & Dubner say the culprit was…television! They compared cities that began receiving TV signals at different times---the national roll-out during the 40s and 50s was far from uniform—and measured crime rates. They even looked at kids of different ages in the same cities to see if the older ones who didn’t have television throughout their lives had different outcomes from those who did.

For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property-crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent-crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.
The relationship between TV watching and crime is so strong that one is tempted to disbelieve the study. Not helping their cause, the researchers at this point can only speculate about the reasons. And, really, how exactly did Lucy, Ozzie, Gilligan, and Jed inspire violence? Turning the dial to Lawrence Welk and Perry Como could drive kids crazy, but in my case I simply retreated to my room with a good book.

Whatever the explanations turn out to be, parents would do well to turn off the tube power down the plasma. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

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