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Watching Violent TV at Pre-School Age Linked to Aggression in Young Boys

November 05, 2007

 Watching violent television programs between the ages of 2 and 5 years of age is clearly linked to aggressive and anti-social behaviors in boys when they reach age 7 to 9, according to a new study published in the November 2007 issue of Pediatrics.

Watching violent television programs between the ages of 2 and 5 years of age is clearly linked to aggressive and anti-social behaviors in boys when they reach age 7 to 9, according to a new study published in the November 2007 issue of Pediatrics.

Investigators Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, and Frederick Zimmerman, PhD, both of Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the University of Washington School of Medicine, add these findings to their growing body of research on the effects of television and media on children and their ability to learn, socialize and develop.

The journal article titled “Violent Television Viewing During Preschool is Associated with Anti-social Behavior During School Age” reviews data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which is a 40-year study of 8,000 U.S. families. The project 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 between pre-school age boys who watched violent programs and their later development of anti-social and aggressive behaviors at ages 7 to 9. There was no such correlation found for 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 non-violent 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 a related companion journal article appearing in the same issue of Pediatrics called “Association Between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems,” the same 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 non-violent programs. This second 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.”

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.

About Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Located in downtown Seattle’s biotech corridor, Seattle Children’s Research Institute is pushing the boundaries of medical research to find cures for pediatric diseases and improve outcomes for children all over the world. Internationally recognized investigators and staff at the research institute are advancing new discoveries in cancer, genetics, immunology, pathology, infectious disease, injury prevention and bioethics, among others. As part of Seattle Children’s Hospital, the research institute brings together leading minds in pediatric research to provide patients with the best care possible. Seattle Children’s serves as the primary teaching, clinical and research site for the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, which consistently ranks as one of the best pediatric departments in the country. For more information, visit http://www.seattlechildrens.org/research.

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