UW Today

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November 8, 2007

Watching violence on TV linked to later trouble for young boys

Early viewing of violent television programs is linked to later aggressive and anti-social behavior in boys and doubles the risk of future childhood attention problems, according to a pair of news studies published Monday in the November issue of Pediatrics.

The research by Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman, both with the UW’s School of Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute, adds to their growing body of research on the effects of television and media on children’s ability to learn, socialize and develop healthfully.

The study examining anti-social behavior looked at the types of programming watched by 184 boys and 146 girls between ages 2 and 5, and anti-social behaviors between ages 7 and 10. A clear link was found among pre-school age boys who watched violent programs and their later development of anti-social and aggressive behaviors at ages 7 to 9. Significantly, the correlation to later aggressive and anti-social behaviors in boys only appeared with those shows and programming rated as violent. There was no association for any type of programming with anti-social behavior among girls.

“This new study provides further evidence of how important and powerful television and media are as young children develop,” said Christakis. “However, the news here is not all bad. While we found that shows like violent cartoons or football can make children more aggressive, we found no such effect for other programs such as educational ones. This points out that parents must be informed and very selective when making media choices for their children.”

“These findings are a bit unnerving because we know from other studies that the behaviors children manifest in early childhood track into adolescence and even into adulthood,” said Christakis. “As children grow older they gradually learn coping skills to deal with difficult situations, so it’s important to provide positive role models for them at a young age.”

The anti-social and aggressive behaviors noted in this study’s data included observations about cheating, being mean to others, feeling no regret, being destructive, disobedience at school and having trouble with teachers.

In the study, television programming such as football, many cartoons and titles like Power Rangers, Star Wars, Space Jam and Spider Man were all classed as violent entertainment because characters fight or flee from violent situations, laugh or cheer as they rejoice in violent acts, and show more violence than would be expected in the everyday life of a child. Even G-rated films intended for children can be filled with violence and classed as violent entertainment, according to this definition.

By contrast, shows considered nonviolent included programs like Toy Story, Flintstones and Rugrats. A third category of educational programming was also reviewed, such as Barney, Sesame Street, Magic School Bus and Winnie-the-Pooh. Significantly, the correlation to later aggressive and anti-social behaviors in boys only appeared with those shows and programming rated as violent.

It has long been suspected that television, media and entertainment have a great impact on the development of children. “We now recognize that content is key,” said Christakis. “Given the media-saturated world that young children now inhabit, we need further research and policies to ensure that media exerts a positive influence on children.”

In the companion study the researchers found that for children under age 3, each hour per day spent watching violent television was associated with approximately twice the risk of attention problems five years later. There was also significant risk of increased attention problems associated with watching nonviolent television for the same age group, but no risk was associated with viewing educational programming. Older children ages 4 and 5 showed no increased risk five years later for attention problems from watching violent or nonviolent programs. This study was based on data collected from parents of 933 children and shows that the effect of violent television content on attention problems is much higher than previously estimated when program content was not identified.

“It would appear both of these studies rule out educational TV as a contributor to either aggression or attention problems among young children,” said Zimmerman. “Parents can take some comfort in that, especially since there is some high-quality educational programming available on TV and DVD. Together these studies suggest that by changing the channel, parents may be able to change their children’s behavior.”

Examples of aggressive content include many cartoons, pratfall comedians and animated movies, including many G-rated ones in which events are depicted that may be distressing to children, such as loss of a parent, loud arguments or scary transformations.

Christakis’ and Zimmerman’s other recent studies have shown that playing with blocks can improve language acquisition, and that baby DVDs and videos that purport to enhance language development may in fact actually hinder it. Together they are authors of the book The Elephant in the Living Room: Make TV Work for Your Kids, a guide for parents.