TV viewing raises risk teens may turn violent

More than hour daily worrisome, study says

March 29, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

One more bit of disturbing news for parents: Teens who watch more than one hour of television a day may be at greater risk of becoming violent adults.

That's the conclusion of the first long-term look at how the TV viewing habits of adolescents affect them later in life. The research was published today in the journal Science.

The 17-year study is only the second in the history of television research to follow viewers from youth to adulthood. As a result, scientists say it provides the most persuasive evidence yet of a link between television viewing and violent behavior.

The study, coming on the heels of new evidence that sex and violence on network television may be dropping, is likely to stoke the 50-year-old debate over what broadcasters should be allowed to show and how much television is healthy for children to watch.

"Our findings support the conclusion that parents shouldn't let their children watch television for more than an hour a day," says Jeffrey G. Johnson, a Columbia University psychiatrist and lead author of the study.

To determine the long-term effects of television on teens, Johnson and his colleagues followed more than 700 randomly selected Upstate New York youths from 1983 to 2000, interviewing them about their TV habits and whether they had ever gotten into fights or committed other aggressive acts.

They also separately asked each child's mother the same questions and drew upon criminal arrest data from state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Researchers found that the more television a teen watched, the more likely it would be that he or she would commit violent acts later in life. Fewer than 6 percent of teens who watched television less than one hour a day committed assaults, robberies or other violent acts as adults. But nearly 28 percent of kids who watched television three or more hours a day did.

Johnson said the link remained even after researchers statistically subtracted the effects of previous aggressive behavior, low family income, neighborhood violence, psychiatric disorders and poor parental education - all of which have been found to influence television viewing or violent behavior.

Men and women responded differently to heavy television watching.

In their teen-age years, boys were more likely than girls to become aggressive. But by age 22, that difference disappeared. Women who watched lots were more likely than men to get into fights or commit crimes by the time they were 30.

Because scientists didn't track the programs youths watched, scientists were unable to explain the gender differences. But they say they're probably caused by witnessing violence because other studies have shown 60 percent of television programs contain some form of it.

"You can't avoid it," says Leonard Eron, a social scientist at the University of Michigan.

It's far from the first time that questions have been raised about the effects of televised violence on children. The first congressional hearings on the subject occurred in 1952, only a few years after TV made its national debut.

One of the first scientific studies was conducted in 1956 by Alberta Siegel, a Stanford University psychologist who died last fall. She showed that 4-year-olds who watched rowdy Woody Woodpecker cartoons were far more likely to roughhouse afterward than peers who watched the more mellow Little Red Hen.

While hundreds of social science studies have been conducted on television's effects since Siegel's groundbreaking work, most have focused on children. By focusing on teen-agers and young adults, the Columbia study fills in a crucial piece in the puzzle, notes psychologist Craig Anderson of the Iowa State University in an accompanying article in Science.

Some social scientists were surprised that adolescents would be as susceptible to television violence as children.

"I had assumed that the older kids were, the less affected they would be," said Eron, whose pioneering research on television viewing and aggression began in the early 1960s. "It shows that the effects of television are quite pervasive."

While the scientific picture of television's effect on behavior may be growing clearer, what should be done about it remains as fuzzy as ever.

The National Association of Broadcasters points to new evidence that the amount of sex and violence on television is falling. A study released last week by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent nonprofit media watchdog in Washington, found that the amount of sexual content on network TV shows fell by 29 percent from 1998 through last year while the amount of serious violence dropped by 17 percent.

But it's unclear whether the drop is due to a conscious effort by network broadcasters or accidental.

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