New studies reveal links between childhood TV viewing habits and aggressive behavior

Prolonged exposure to television can have serious and long-lasting effects on children’s behavior, according to two recent university studies. Reports published in the February edition of US journal ‘Pediatrics’ claim to have identified significant links between excessive time spent in front of the TV and increased aggression in young children. One of the studies, carried out by the University of Otago in New Zealand, also suggests that too much childhood TV time may later be responsible for antisocial or criminal activity in adults.

According to research carried out by the Otago team, there is an astonishing correlation between watching more than two hours of television per night – the limit suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics – and aggressive personality traits. Results indicate that the likelihood of criminal conviction by early adulthood increases by an astonishing 30 per cent with each additional hour of nightly TV.

In their study, 1037 individuals born in the early 1970s were assessed at regular intervals from birth through to age 26. Particular attention was paid to the number of nightly viewing hours from 5 to 15 years, and subsequent indications of sociopathic behaviour. Using regression analysis, the Otago researchers identified disturbing associations between viewing time and criminality, diagnosis of antisocial personality disorders, and aggressive personality traits. The results remained statistically significant after factoring in controls for socioeconomic status, sex, IQ, parental control, and previous signs of antisocial behavior.

Robert Hancox, one of the co-authors of the paper, notes that although the research does not suggest that TV causes all anti-social behaviour, it does present evidence that changing childhood viewing habits could lead to a widespread reduction in negative behaviors. The paper theorises that children may be influenced in several ways by lengthy exposure to television. While noting that the quality of programming is an important factor, it also suggests that emotional desensitisation in children may be caused by social isolation from peers and parents. Prolonged viewing may also lead to lower educational achievement and an increased risk of unemployment.

The second study, directed by researchers from the University of Washington, has focussed more directly on the effects of poor programming choices. It notes that many young children are spending more than four hours each day in front of a television, and that much of this media diet consists of violent or otherwise unsuitable content.

The Washington researchers helped parents to choose pro-social and educational programmes for their children, without changing the actual number of viewing hours. Over the course of a year, 565 children aged between three and five were evaluated for social competence while being exposed to different types of programming. One group was offered ‘positive’ shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “Sesame Street”, while a control group was allowed to watch their normal programmes.

According to results obtained from the study, careful selection of children’s viewing content can lead to “significant improvements” in social competencies such as co-operative problem solving, manners, and nonviolent conflict resolution. The researchers noted that the biggest changes were in boys from low income families. Lead author, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, suggests that although “television is frequently implicated as a cause of many problems in children, [the] research indicates that it may also be part of the solution.”

Not everyone has reacted positively to the findings from these two studies, however. Dr. John Grohol, from the Psych Central website, offers a strident condemnation of the methodologies used in both studies, and questions the value of their results. Dr. Grohol notes that there are many factors which were not taken into consideration by the Otago team, and also suggests that the Washington researchers displayed an “astounding” lack of objectivity. “Why researchers insist on pursuing this questionable line of inquiry is beyond me,” he concludes.

It is difficult to agree with this conclusion, however. Although Dr. Grohol is quick to point out that the ‘Pediatrics’ journal “continually publishes weak research — especially on the effects of TV and children,” it is surely far more equitable to suggest that research of this type can have cumulative value, rather than to attack it for not being definitive.

His interest in the reliability of the research is well founded, however. As one of the editors of the journal, ‘Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking’, Dr Grohol oversees publication of many papers which also examine the relationship between media and behavior. It is not hard to imagine that any evidence uncovered by television researchers may one day have similar implications for a generation of children with almost unlimited access to computer screens and video games.