Should you let your toddler/preschooler watch TV? Part II

ResearchBlogging.orgi-36dff0e2262e3a9120d32ea7b86ae13d-christakis.jpgWhen Jim and Nora were toddlers, they were huge fans of everything Disney. Here they're wearing their Disney pajamas as they play next to their Seven Dwarves figurines, underneath their TV, which was frequently used to watch Disney videos. We even took them to Disney World, where they had an absolute blast, but turned out to be afraid of life-sized Disney characters (but that's a story for another day).

While we didn't let them watch Disney movies whenever they wanted, we did allow it once or twice a week, and even built up a large collection of videos, which we still use to entertain younger guests.

But Disney movies aren't benign. In fact, they're quite violent, and often in ways that can be very disturbing: mothers and fathers are killed, children are abandoned, vicious, brutal battles are fought. As we discussed a couple weeks ago, toddlers who are allowed to watch entertainment shows (as opposed to educational TV, and including violent shows) are significantly more likely to develop attention problems when they're older.

But does violent TV have other impacts? In a separate study, the same researchers -- Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman -- took a look at the same 1997 survey results and a 2002 follow up of families with small children (330 kids in all). The kids were age 18 months to 5 years old in 1997. This time in addition to TV-watching, the researchers looked at parents' reports of antisocial behavior of their kids when they were older. The parents rated their kids on a scale of 1 to 3 for six different statements: "My child cheats, is mean to others, feels no regret, is destructive, is disobedient at school, and has trouble with teachers." Based on these responses, they divided the kids into two groups -- those whose antisocial behavior was problematic (corresponding to the 90th percentile of antisocial behavior in the general population), and those who showed normal social behavior.

Next they analyzed the TV-watching habits of these kids to see if TV-watching (including both live TV and videos like Disney movies) predicted antisocial behavior. Here are the results:


The results are expressed in terms of an odds ratio -- in this case, the chance of developing antisocial behavior compared to not developing antisocial behavior five years later. An odds ratio of 1 signifies that there is no relationship between the two items compared. Preschool boys who watched violent videos when they were younger were significantly more likely to have problematic antisocial behavior at age 7-9. There was no significant relationship between any type of TV watching for girls and antisocial behavior, and nonviolent TV wasn't related to antisocial behavior in boys (though with a larger sample, this result might have risen to significance).

The researchers controlled for a number of other factors, such as parent's education and economic status, whether a father was present, and whether the kids were already displaying antisocial behavior when they were younger. The graph above reflects the adjusted amounts, and also accounts for the amount of time spent watching TV.

This study measured fewer younger children than the study about attentional problems (because most of the parents of toddlers in the sample weren't asked about antisocial behavior in their kids), so we can't say for sure whether watching violent TV at a very young age leads to anti-social behavior. But for boys age 3-5, the effect is rather dramatic. Even spanking a child didn't have a significant effect in this sample (although spanking has been shown to have detrimental effects in other studies). In retrospect, it may not have been a good idea for us to let Jim watch those movies -- though limiting the amount of movies he watched probably helped.

D. A. Christakis, F. J. Zimmerman (2007). Violent Television Viewing During Preschool Is Associated With Antisocial Behavior During School Age PEDIATRICS, 120 (5), 993-999 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-3244

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Isn't it possible that parents who are more bothered by violent tv are also more afraid to admit their children exhibit antisocial behavior?

One would expect that the more violent TV the more antisocial behavior. Was this found? I also wonder if there is a threshold, below which there is little or no impact, above which there is an impact. So that a Disney movie here and there, no big deal for most kids. I also suspect there's an interaction between parental level of aggression.

A couple of points:

1. With all the studies showing a link between
violent TV/Movies and increased aggression,
these violent videos really should come
with a warning label (similar to the warning
labels put on packs of cigarettes).

2. It's interesting that in the above study
the effect was so much greater for boys
than for girls.

According to this study:

"Women who watched aggressive TV heroines as
children more prone to aggression and criminal
behavior, says U-M study"

I guess it makes sense that girls and/or women
identify more with the female Characters, and thus
the female Characters (whether violent or not) would
have more of an effect than the male Characters.

It could be that in the above toddler study,
the male Characters were more violent than
the female Characters which would explain, I think,
the different results for boys and girls.

Does that sound like a reasonable hypotheses?

Would the increase in violent female characters
help explain the rise in real-life female violence?

it'd be interesting to try and quantify repetition.

my son, 2, watches his father play sports. then he acts out what he sees. if daddy tackles, son imitates tackles at home. if daddy free throws, son free throws. the small pieces of life that are violent here get imitated, too, but they are in small doses.

children love to watch tv and watch it over and over and over again, the same episodes, the same stories. if you saw some a small amount of violence, but it covered a variety of situations, is that the same as watching the same violent show 5,000 times?

Isn't it possible that children who have attention problems are more likely to have parents who have attention problems who are more likely to allow them to watch what they want on TV?


Children who have attention problems are more likely to be tough to handle and their parents are more likely to 'give in' and let them watch TV?


Parents who limit their children's TV watching to only educational programs are more likely to have children without attention problems?

Oh that's ridiculous. I've been watching those movies my whole life (Disney) and ever since I was like 3 yrs old maybe and I don't think I have a problem, neither do my siblings and they've grown up, I'm six years older.

And violence in Disney movies? Could be. But if you were THAT little I doubt you would know these things. The broom fell on the cat's head in Cinderella, did I imitate it? No, it was just funny. If this is true, then no one should be watching tv. All kids are somehow bad as they grow no matter what. If your child is an absolute angel their whole life, s/he might be living under a rock for quite a while.

Yes, Jihan, that is why research is important. There is a difference between anecdotal evidence (e.g. "I watched TV and it didn't affect me") and research which, with a robust enough study and replication enables us to draw real world predictions with a greater than chance confidence. A person who smokes may not get lung cancer, but there is now incontravertible evidence that smoking is a real risk to the population's health - regardless of whether the individual actually gets cancer or not. Research allows us to make greater than chance claims and predictions; anecdotes do not.

By Dana Isaacs (not verified) on 13 Nov 2008 #permalink

I have twin boys. Their separate reactions to TV were startling. At 18 months, one did a drooling sort of mind-meld and couldn't be distracted from it, the other looked for several minutes and then went about his business. My concern became not what TV did to them, but what they were not doing that was necessary for best human development at that age while they were, instead, sitting with eyes fixed on the TV. I thought about my self and decided that if, while the TV is on, I am incapable of doing anything productive or satisfying while watching TV, neither can these developing humans I am in charge of. So, we pulled the plug and all have been happier, healthier, and, to my mind, more human. We are doers, not watchers.

Kevin Lawrence wrote:

Isn't it possible that children who have attention
problems are more likely to have parents who have
attention problems who are more likely to allow them
to watch what they want on TV?


Children who have attention problems are more likely
to be tough to handle and their parents are more likely
to 'give in' and let them watch TV?


Parents who limit their children's TV watching to only
educational programs are more likely to have children
without attention problems?


There have been a number of studies finding a correlation
between attention problems and TV watching. But as
Mr. Lawrence points out, other factors could be causing
both the TV watching and the attention problems. In other
words, it could be that TV does not *cause* attention

Luckily science does have other types of studies at it's

For example, cigarette smoking is correlated with lung
cancer, but it took other types of evidence (in addition)
to prove that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.

In the case of cigarettes, animal studies were also done.
Mice were forced to frequently breath in cigarette smoke,
a much higher percentage these mice eventually contracted
lung cancer.

It's hard to do a similar study with TV since most animals
aren't that interested in TV. But from what I've read some
of the higher primates (besides humans) do enjoy watching
TV. A study could be done where half the (randomly assigned)
chimps were kept no-TV and the other half were allowed to
watch hours every day for years. Periodically their ability
to focus could be measured and compared. I do believe the
high-TV chimps would have reduced abilities to concentrate.

Also more studies looking at how TV effects brainwaves need
to be done. There is some evidence that TV watching slows
down the brainwaves of adults, does it have the same effect
on children? And how much do the brainwaves slow down?
Note: the faster the brainwaves, the greater the focus.
Slow brainwaves mean less focus.

These studies raise as many (more?) questions as they answer.

For one, I'm old enough that I didn't watch any TV as a toddler, as we didn't have one. By the time I was in school, we had TV and we watched it together as a family after dinner. Are there any old studies done about how family interactions changed after TVs became fixtures in our living rooms?

From anecdotal memories, it would seem this timing might correlate with a rise in violence. (Of course, the late 50s and early 60s are jam-packed with the introduction of a lot of things, but one thing in common is TV coverage of them.)

Didn't Sixty Minutes do a story about some country (Bhutan?) where the people were very peaceful, but after the introduction of TV and violent American TV shows, the kids started karate-kicking each other and stuff?

By David Group (not verified) on 19 Nov 2008 #permalink

Terry said:

I guess it makes sense that girls and/or women
identify more with the female Characters, and thus
the female Characters (whether violent or not) would
have more of an effect than the male Characters.

I wonder if it may show a similar effect on ethnic stereotypes too. Once I've read something about children at about 5 years already having "prejudices" on professions in relation with different ethnic groups. There was something about they just evaluation some profession as something the earns more money just because the professional depicted was white.

I'm almost certain that someone would call me a communist by suggesting that, but this and other sort of thing (like children preffering McDonald's carrots when it does not even exist) makes me thing of the importance of some sort of more scientific regulation of tv content. It may not necessarily by governmental in every aspect, as a form of semi-censorship (if the "semi" really makes sense), perhaps it could be awareness campaigns and consumer pressure, but I'm somewhat skeptical of it.

Isn't science reaching a point where it's almost right to say that there's "memetic"/cultural "pollution"? From a considerably non-ideological point of view, things that affect the mental health, as "normal" pollutants affect the physiological (and mental) health of individuals.

Normal pollution affecting health is usually a matter of serious concern, and governmental action is not rarely seen as acceptable, but with things interfering in the freedom of expression it gets (not without a good reason) far more complicated, even for the more left-wing leaning individuals who are not outright in favor of censorship.

Ironically I think that the religious right would not think it's a bad idea anyway, as long as religion can get its free ticket.

The safest route is perhaps NGOs promoting awareness of these issues.