TCS Daily

Violent Couch Potatoes?

By Iain Murray - April 10, 2002 12:00 AM

The TV is a double-edged sword for parents. Many worry that their children might pick up bad habits from it or become desensitized to high levels of violence. No parent wants their child to cuss or hit their friends after an evening watching 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin and the WWF. Yet many of those same parents are delighted if their child learns things from Elmo or Blue's Clues. Those programs are harmless, they think, the TV can have a good side.

That conclusion has been challenged, however, by recent research published in Science magazine that found that television watching in general leads to violence. The study found that TV viewing was associated with significantly increased risk of violent behavior later in life.

For instance, young men who watched three or more hours of TV a day at age 22 were two and a half times as likely to have been involved in an assault or a fight resulting in injury at age 30 than those who had watched less than one hour a day. This is after controlling for other factors that might be associated with both TV watching and violence, like childhood neglect or low family income.

This is a controversial finding. Previous studies have claimed to find a connection between violent images on TV and violent behavior, but this study claims a direct connection between TV viewing in general and violence years later. How can watching Sesame Street have the same effect as watching the WWF? It is a major weakness of the study that it did not seek to ask participants which programs they generally watched or what sort of program they would like to see more of. If violent behavior correlates more closely with watching violent programs, then the effect of TV in and of itself on violence may cease to be significant.

In fact, the study is already overstated. It finds only a 50 percent increase in violent behavior between those who watched less than 1 hour a day's TV at age 14 and those that had watched more than three hours. In general, an epidemiologist would not consider that rate of increase proof of anything. Moreover, the vast majority of the subjects were non-violent, however much TV they had watched.

In other words, this study does not really show that watching more TV makes you violent. Instead, it claims that there's a slight increase in the small chance you will be violent.

Beyond that, however, there's a bigger objection. Because of the way the study was constructed it assumed that watching TV for less than an hour a day was the norm, against which violent behavior should be measured.

But what if those people who watch TV so little do so for reasons that are actually likely to make them significantly less violent than the average person? For instance, someone who attends church regularly and is involved in many church activities is probably less likely to be involved in violence; they are also less likely to watch as much TV, because their time is taken up with other things. The same goes for other civic involvement, such as active membership of environmental movements. If watching less TV is a by-product of greater involvement in civil society, then it may be that which causes an unusually lower rate of violence, rather than TV causing a higher rate.

If so, then this study has looked at things the wrong way round. It would perhaps have been more sensible to compare the effect of both the extremes against the real norm of watching one to three hours a day (which is the amount watched by the majority of the sample). From the figures presented in the report, it seems likely that, after controlling for other factors, there would be no significant effect of watching more than the norm, but probably a significant effect from watching less.

The study can therefore hardly be said to have proved its point, that watching more TV leads to more aggressive behavior. Instead, we have two questions that need to be answered. Is the real issue violent television, not just any TV? And is the real solution not turning off the TV set, but finding something worthwhile to do that means you rarely turn it on in the first place?

There are some who will claim - my wife is one - that watching too much children's educational programming will make you want to smash the TV, but in general there is nothing to worry about. This study has not shown that TV will in itself cause your child to grow up bad. TV is now part of a child's everyday social interaction with other children. There's no need to take that away from them as a result of this study.

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