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Appropriate TV watching reduces childhood aggression

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
aggression, violence. TV programming, preschoolers

Yet another study has reported the negative impact on children from watching violent material on television. In addition to reporting the adverse effect of TV violence, the study noted that the type of content watched was more important than the length of time the preschoolers watched TV. The research was conducted on preschool-aged children by researchers affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. Their findings were published online on February 18 in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers noted that previous studies have revealed that preschool-aged children imitate both aggression and prosocial behaviors displayed on television; however, there have been few population-based studies designed to reduce aggression in preschool-aged children by modifying what they watch. (Prosocial behavior is voluntary behavior intended to benefit another individual.) Therefore, the researchers devised a media diet intervention wherein parents were assisted in substituting high quality prosocial and educational programming for aggression-containing programming without trying to reduce total screen time. They conducted a randomized controlled trial of 565 parents of preschool-aged children ages three to five years recruited from community pediatric practices. Half the parents were coached for six months on how to get their preschoolers to watch shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Dora the Explorer” rather than more violent programs such as “Power Rangers.” The results were compared with children whose parents received advice on healthy eating instead.

The outcomes were derived from the Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation at six and 12 months. The investigators found that at 6 months, the overall mean (average) Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation score was 2.11 points better in the intervention group as compared with the controls; similar effects were observed for the externalizing subscale and the social competence subscale. The effect for the internalizing subscale was in a positive direction; however, it was not statistically significant. The researchers found that the effect of the type of programming did not noticeably deteriorate at 12 months; however, the effect on the externalizing subscale was no longer statistically significant. Overall, boys from low-income families were found to benefit the most from the intervention.

The authors concluded that an intervention to reduce exposure to TV violence and increase exposure to prosocial programming reduces violence among preschoolers. They noted that teaching parents to switch channels from violent shows to educational TV can improve preschoolers’ behavior, even without getting them to watch less.

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The study falls on the heels of another study conducted by researchers in The Netherlands last October. The investigators designed a study to determine whether the amount, type, and patterns of television viewing predict the onset or the persistence of externalizing problems in preschool children. The study group comprised 3,913 children. Their parents reported time of television exposure and type of programs watched by children. The incidence and persistence of externalizing problems were assessed using the Child Behavior Checklist at 18 and 36 months.

Of the study group, a small portion (approximately 300) already had some behavioral problems; they exhibited oppositional behavior, aggressive actions, and tended to be inattentive. The remainder had no preexisting problems. The researchers found that program content and time of television exposure assessed at 24 months did not predict the incidence of externalizing problems at 36 months; however, the patterns of exposure over time reflecting high levels of television viewing were associated with the incidence of externalizing problems (2.0-fold increased risk) and the persistence of the preexisting externalizing problems (2.59-fold increased risk).

The authors concluded: “Our study showed that high television exposure increases the risk of the incidence and the persistence of externalizing problems in preschool children.”

Take home message:
Many parents plop their kids down in front of the TV to occupy theme while they pursue household duties or other activities. Violence is not only displayed on news program but also on cartoons. Thus, it behooves parents to not only limit TV exposure to their children but also ensure that they are viewing appropriate content.

Reference: Pediatrics