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Does childhood TV viewing lead to criminal behavior?

February 18, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more than one or two hours of television a day.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more… (Ted S. Warren )

Two recent studies linking childhood television viewing to antisocial behavior and criminal acts as adults are prompting some pediatricians to call for a national boob tube intervention.

A commentary published alongside the studies in the journal Pediatrics on Monday lamented the fact that most parents have failed to limit their children's television viewing to no more than one or two hours a day -- a recommendation made by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

On average, preschool-age children in the United States spend 4.4 hours per day in front of the television, either at home or in daycare.

"The problem is, they are not listening," wrote Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital. "With our society of smartphones and YouTube and video streaming, screen time is becoming more a part of daily life, not less."

Now, based on evidence from a University of Washington study, McCarthy and others say that pediatricians should focus instead on the type of television children are viewing. Parents should steer children toward educational or "prosocial" programming instead of shows featuring violence and aggression.

"It is a variation on the 'if you can't beat 'em join 'em' idea," McCarthy wrote. "If the screens are going to be on, let's concentrate on the content, and how we can make it work for children."

The consequences are significant, experts say.

A study conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand concluded that every extra hour of television watched by children on a weeknight increased by 30% the risk of having a criminal conviction by age 26.

The study was based on 1,037 New Zealanders born in 1972 and 1973, and interviewed at regular intervals until age 26. It also involved a review of criminal and mental health records.

"Young adults who had spent more time watching television during childhood and adolescence were significantly more likely to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, and more aggressive personality traits compared with those who viewed less television," wrote Lindsay Robertson, the lead author and a public health researcher at Dunedin School of Medicine.

In the University of Washington study, researchers devised a "media diet intervention" in which parents were assisted in substituting prosocial and education programming for more violent fare. However, the parents were not asked to reduce their children's total viewing time.

The study involved 565 Seattle-area parents with children ages 3 to 5 and lasted a year. A control group of children were allowed to watch television as they usually did, while the intervention group was steered toward programming that featured nonviolent conflict resolution, cooperative problem solving, manners and empathy. (Examples of such shows included "Dora the Explorer," "Sesame Street" and "Super Why.") 

Both groups of children were evaluated for their social competence after six months and after 12 months.

The intervention group showed "significant improvements" in social competence testing scores after six months, wrote Dr. Dimitri Christakis, lead author and pediatrics professor. Low-income boys appeared to benefit the most, authors said.

"Although television is frequently implicated as a cause of many problems in children, our research indicates that it may also be part of the solution," authors wrote.

The authors of both papers noted that the studies were limited in some respects.

Authors of the New Zealand study said it was possible that antisocial behavior itself led to more television viewing.

And authors of the Seattle study noted that while parents were not told of the purpose of the study, they may have figured it out and modified their behavior, biasing the results.

Return to Booster Shots blog.

Follow me on Twitter @montemorin.

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