TV Can Improve Kids' Behavior, Study Finds

By Samir Vermani, M.D.:

Young adults who spent more time in front of a TV during their childhood are significantly more likely to be arrested and exhibit aggressive behavior, a new study found.

But another study found some TV programming can actually improve kids' behavior.

Researchers followed more than 1,000 young people in New Zealand from birth to age 26 and monitored the amount of television they watched during the ages of 5 and 15. In addition to monitoring television habits, the researchers also monitored criminal convictions, diagnoses of antisocial personality disorder, and personality traits of the individuals.

"This is one of the largest and best studies to date to look at long term outcomes from exposure to television," said Dr. Christakis, director of Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, who was not involved with the study.

The more television children watched, the more likely they were to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and more aggressive personality traits, the study found. The trend was seen equally in both males and females, and the researchers controlled for sex, IQ, socioeconomic status, previous antisocial behavior, and even parental control.

So does this mean your TV is turning your child into a convict? Not necessarily, caution some pediatricians.

"From this study there does seem to be an association between excessive screen time and criminality," said Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas-based pediatrician and author of " Baby 411." "However, [the study] cannot show evidence that the number of hours watched causes criminality. Correlation, yes. Causation, no."

While this study highlights the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that children should watch no more than one to two hours of television each day, the study did not look at what these children were watching, a weakness of the study many point out.

"It's hard to imagine seeing the same results if they had just watched PBS documentaries," said Christakis. "More emphasis needs to be placed on quality, not quantity."

Christakis is the lead author of a study published in the same journal that reveals that changing what your children watch may actually improve their behavior.

"All television is educational, but the real question is: What is it teaching?" he said.

He and his team of researchers studied 820 families with children aged 3 to 5. Half of the families were placed in the intervention group, and replaced aggressive and violent television with educational and pro-social television. The other half of the families in the control group did not change the programming their children watched. No changes were made in the amount of television the children viewed, however, parents were encouraged to watch television with their children in the intervention group. Six months later children in the intervention group demonstrated significantly less aggression and noted to be more social than the children in the control group.

As a result of the study, experts suggest watching educational television with children can actually improve their behavior.

"Children imitate what they see on screen. They imitate bad behavior, but also good behavior. Parents should take advantage of this," said Christakis.

"It's not just about turning off the TV, but changing the channel."