Solo Viewing, Bad Endings

Kids and TV
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The kind of television shows children watch and whom they watch them with can be just as important as the amount of time they spend in front of the tube, researchers at Boston's Children's Hospital report in a new study that finds an association between violent shows and peer problems.

Children who watch violent television programs -- especially those who watch such shows alone -- spend less time with friends than children who watch a lot of nonviolent programs. Although the federally funded study could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, researchers suspect one exists. They suggest that violent shows might teach and encourage aggressive behavior in children, which in turn isolates them from their peers. And that isolation, scientists suggest, appears to create a cycle that makes violent programming more attractive to lonely children.

"A lot of studies about violence and television deal with behavioral outcomes that don't resonate with people" because they occur years later, said David Bickham, lead author of the new study, which involved 1,356 children and appears in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. "We wanted something with a real-life outcome" that would motivate parents to consider the potential consequences of uncensored viewing that are more immediate.

While concerns about the harmful impact of violent TV shows on children are scarcely new -- the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning in 1972 -- their influence on children's friendships and social activities has been little studied.

"This is a very interesting and novel study," said research psychologist Craig Anderson, an expert on children and media who is a professor at Iowa State University. "There really haven't been studies looking at TV violence" and peer relationships among children. "What they propose does make a lot of sense."

The study, by scientists at the Harvard-affiliated hospital's Center on Media and Child Health, suggests that the content of shows and the context in which they are viewed may influence social relationships in a more complicated way than previously believed.

Many researchers had speculated that TV viewing displaces time spent with friends. But Bickham and pediatrician Michael O. Rich found that children who watched television with friends also spent more time socializing in other ways, while those who watched violent shows spent significantly less time with their peers.

Studies have found that the average school-age child spends 27 hours a week watching TV and that 61 percent of programs contain violence.

To determine whether violent content affected relationships with peers differently than nonviolent shows, researchers analyzed detailed viewing diaries kept by a parent or other adult during one weekday and one weekend day for children between the ages of 6 and 12. The name of the TV show was recorded, as was the presence of other people in the room and activities performed while a show was on. Crime shows, police dramas and cartoons such as "Power Rangers" were classified as violent, as were other shows where violence was a central theme, Bickham said. News, sports and some nonfiction programming were omitted from the study.

Each hour of violent television watched by children aged 6 to 8 corresponded to 20 minutes less time spent with friends, while children 9 to 12 who watched an hour of violent shows spent 25 minutes less time with peers. Viewing nonviolent shows did not affect the time spent with friends, Bickham said.

"Viewing television together may be one activity in the repertoire of a rich childhood friendship," the authors write; the study, they continue, does not support the belief that watching TV "interferes with relationships or replaces other shared activities."

The results are consistent with findings from other studies, according to Brad J. Bushman, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

"We know that how much violence you watch in first grade predicts how aggressive you will be 15 years later," Bushman said. "The link goes from violent TV to aggressive behavior in children, not the other way around."

The study did not examine the impact of violent programming viewed by groups of children. Bickham said there is no way to know whether collective viewing might encourage or discourage antisocial behavior or peer problems.

Nor does it demonstrate cause and effect, he added. "This just shows relationships" between violent viewing and peer isolation, he said, not causation.

Yet Bickham said the message for parents is simple: They, not their children, should be in control of the TV.

That means monitoring what children are watching, not turning on the set in the morning and leaving it on all day and not allowing children to watch shows meant for adults, such as "CSI" or "The Sopranos."

"These are things parents need to be aware of," he said. "It's not just the amount of time your child is spending, it's what he or she is watching." ยท

Comments: boodmans@washpost.com. Join study author David Bickham for a Live Online chat on TV viewing and children's social development at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com.


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