Television and Aggressive Behavior

Two studies published this week in the journal Pediatrics shed light on television consumption and its effect on aggressive behavior and criminal activity in children and young adults.

Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found the more television children watched, the more likely they were to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and more aggressive personality traits. The study also found the risk of a criminal conviction in early adulthood increased 30% with every additional hour of television watched on a typical weeknight.

While the first study looked at the quantity of television watched, the second focused on the quality of programming. Researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute reported the results of a program designed to limit the exposure of 3-5 year olds to violent television shows and increase their time with educational programming. The experiment reduced children’s aggression toward others, compared with a group of children who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted. Low-income boys appeared to benefit most, but the results were modest and faded after one year.

The lead author of the Seattle study, Dr. Demitri Chistakis, believes that the results have important implications for parents. “Children imitate what they see on screen. They imitate bad behavior, but also good behavior. Parents should take advantage of this. It’s not just about turning off the TV, but changing the channel.”

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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children should watch no more than two hours of quality programming per day. But what is “quality” programming? To help parents find television programs that are acceptable for their children, the non-profit organization Common Sense Media provides ratings for a variety of television programming as well as other media.

The authors of the second study believe that better quality, not less, television could improve behavior. So is programming such as “Dora the Explorer” the answer to raising less aggressive children? Not necessarily. Kids who spend more time watching television spend less time interacting with family members. Research suggests that positive interaction with parents is negatively related to engaging in problem behavior among early adolescent children. The short-term positive impact that quality programming may have on young children does not replace the benefits of healthy relationships and meaningful interaction with parents and other family members. Interventions designed to foster these relationships will have a lasting impact on the behavior of children as they grow into young adults.