Adolescents’ TV Watching Is Linked to Violent Behavior

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Adolescents who watch more than one hour of television a day are more likely to commit aggressive and violent acts as adults, according to a 17-year study reported today in the journal Science.

The study, which tracked more than 700 adolescents into adulthood, found that young people watching one to three hours of television daily were almost four times more likely to commit violent and aggressive acts later in life than those who watched less than an hour of TV a day.

Girls as well as boys exhibited increased aggression, according to the study, which was hailed by psychologists and social scientists as more evidence of TV’s harmful effects.


“It’s a very important study and has a great deal of credibility--it very niftily isolates television as a causal factor,” said George Comstock, a researcher on media violence at Syracuse University in New York.

It is also the first study, Comstock said, to clearly link TV viewing among adolescents to later, adult violence.

Families Were Selected Randomly

The study authors, from Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, used data from a wider-ranging survey of the behavior of children in 707 New York state families. The families had been selected randomly--not because their children had any behavior problems.

Over the study’s 17 years, the children and their parents were periodically interviewed about TV habits, violence and aggression. Interviews began in 1983, when the children’s average age was 14; follow-up interviews were conducted at average ages of 16, 22 and 30.

The scientists also examined state and FBI records in 2000 to find out if any of those in the study--who by then had reached an average age of 30--had been arrested or charged with a crime.

The authors found that 5.7% of those who reported watching less than one hour of TV a day as adolescents committed aggressive acts against others in subsequent years--either by their own admission, a parent’s report or legal records. Those acts included threats, assaults, fights, robbery and using a weapon to commit a crime.


That figure rose to 22.5% of those who watched TV for one to three hours a day and to 28.8% of those who watched more than three hours daily.

The size of the effect was surprising, said lead author Jeffrey Johnson, assistant clinical professor of psychology in Columbia University’s psychiatry department.

He and his coauthors, who conducted the study with federal funds, believe the findings help cement the link between TV and violence. The authors used statistics to rule out other possible causes, such as neglect, poverty and living in a violent neighborhood.

The study did not describe the kinds of programs children were watching, drawing criticism from Jonathan Freedman, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He also said such studies don’t clearly demonstrate that viewing programs is the cause of subsequent violence.

“To suggest that because you get this effect that watching two hours a day causes aggressiveness is going so far beyond the data it’s shocking,” Freedman said.

Critics Say Parents Can Monitor Viewing

The Motion Picture Assn. of America declined to comment on the report until staff members had a chance to read it. Association spokesman Rich Taylor said parents have the technology to easily control what their children watch.

“The V-chip puts a new level of control into a parent’s hands, allowing them to determine and set the level of programming that they wish to allow in their home at any given time,” he said.

Six major medical groups--including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Medical Assn.--have stated that they believe TV violence is a significant problem.

Fears about the negative influence of TV have been voiced almost since 1946, when TV broadcasting began in the United States. The study published today is the latest in a string of investigations aimed at figuring out the link.

One study in the early 1960s shocked the public by showing that children shown a TV program of adults beating a toy clown were more likely to repeat the behavior. Other studies similarly showed a rise in aggressive attitudes and behaviors after people watched violent programs. Subjects were more likely to fight in the playground or “punish” people with fake zaps of electricity.

Other studies have explored the relationship between violent programming and real-life, serious violence--and have also found smaller, although statistically significant, links.

The effects of such viewing pale, by comparison, with the effect of living in an abusive home or hanging out with delinquent peers.

But TV watching is far more prevalent, said Joanne Cantor, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a longtime media violence researcher.

“The implications for parents is that unfettered access to television is not good for your child,” Cantor said. “It has these negative effects--which affect them personally in terms of feeling more hostile. And it looks like it affects other people too--through expression of that hostility in aggressive behavior towards others.”

Responding to the study, National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said, “For every study of this sort that finds a correlation between TV violence and real life violence, there are studies that conclude just the opposite.”

Freedman, meanwhile, said that finding a correlation between TV viewing and violence does not prove TV programs are to blame. Children who are naturally more aggressive may be drawn to watch more violent TV, he said.

While this may be true, Johnson countered, this study and others show that even-tempered children also became more aggressive after watching a lot of television.