Screen violence tied to boys' aggression: study

November 5, 2007
National Post (Reuters)
By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO -- Boys aged 2 to 5 who viewed an hour of on-screen violence a day increased their chances of being overly aggressive later in childhood, but the association was not seen in girls, researchers said Monday.

"This new study provides further evidence of how important and powerful television and media are as young children develop," study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute said.

"Of 184 boys (in the study), 25 of them had serious problems with aggression and for each hour on average per day they had watched violent TV, they were three times more likely to be in that group" than those who did not watch violent programming, Dr. Christakis said in a telephone interview.

Dr. Christakis and fellow researchers, writing in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed the television and video viewing habits of 330 children aged 2 to 5, then assessed their behavior five years later.

Dr. Christakis said many parents may be unaware that the shows or video games their young children watch are violent or inappropriate for their age group.

"Kids that age can't distinguish fantasy from reality" and need it explained to them, he said. "Cartoon violence teaches kids that violence is funny and without consequence. So when people in cartoons have their heads flattened and they pop right back out and kids laugh at it, they really are thinking there are no serious consequence to hitting someone in the head, which obviously isn't true in the real world."

Aggression is evident even in infants, but "the toddler and preschool years constitute the time during which most children learn to use nonaggressive alternatives ... . When that does not occur, young children can continue on a trajectory of aggression," the study said.

The aggressiveness identified in the study when the children reached the ages of 7 to 10 -- being mean to others without regret, destructiveness, disobedience at school -- could presage bad behavior into adolescence and adulthood, said Christakis, citing previous studies.

The association between violent programming and overly aggressive behavior was not found among the 146 girls in the study, who tended to watch more educational and nonviolent shows than the boys, Dr. Christakis said.

Boys may be more genetically predisposed to aggression, "so the same level of exposure brings out aggression in them where it doesn't in girls. It also could be boys are socialized to respond aggressively," he said.

"We'll be launching an experimental study in kids this age and try to reduce the amount of violent TV they watch and increase the amount of pro-social programs -- which should tell us a lot more," Christakis said.