Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, January 14, 2001
Limiting TV viewing reduces aggression in children, study says


Reducing the amount of time that grade-school children spend watching television and playing video games can make them less aggressive toward their peers, say researchers at Stanford University Medical Center.

While many studies have correlated exposure to violent media with aggressive behavior in children, the researchers say their newly published study is the first to show that such behavior can be unlearned by reducing the exposure.

"Reducing television viewing really will work to decrease kids' aggressive behavior," said Tom Robinson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and of medicine. He is the lead author of the study, which appears in January's issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"It's not that once children learn aggressive behavior it becomes their only way of solving problems," Robinson said. "But what's encouraging is that, in children, some of the effects of exposure to media violence can be reversed solely by decreasing that exposure."

Robinson and his colleagues studied 218 third- and fourth-grade students at two public elementary schools in San Jose. The schools were selected because they were in the same district and had similar academic and socio-demographic factors. The children's ages, number of television sets and video game units in the home, and the number of children with TVs in their bedrooms also were comparable.

Teachers at one school gave the students 18 lessons over six months aimed at curbing the amount of time spent watching television, videotapes and video games. Usage levels of students at the other school were measured without any effort to reduce their exposure to TV and video games.

Before and after the "intervention" curriculum was implemented, children at both schools answered a standard set of questions aimed at identifying aggressive classmates. They also responded to a survey to gauge their perceptions of the world around them. In addition, researchers randomly selected 60 percent of the students from each school for direct observation during recess periods.

At the end of the study, researchers found children in the intervention group had reduced their TV viewing by about one-third and their ratings of aggression were about 25 percent lower than those at the control school. They also engaged in about half as many verbally aggressive behaviors ­ such as teasing, threatening or taunting their peers ­ on the playground when compared with students at the control school.

Both boys and girls benefited from the intervention curriculum, and the most aggressive students experienced the greatest drop in combativeness, according to the study.

Previous studies by other researchers suggested that exposure to violent media causes children to become more aggressive and to view aggression as an acceptable method of resolving conflict. In addition, youngsters may become desensitized to violence and victimization, and could come to believe that the world is a "mean and scary" place. One study estimated that children in the United States see 200,000 violent acts on television alone by the time they turn 18.

"Kids spend more time watching television than doing any other thing besides sleeping," said Robinson. "It's not unreasonable to expect that this will translate into large impacts on their health and behavior over time."

In addition to reducing outright aggression, the intervention program decreased the children's tendency to view the world around them as "mean and scary," although Robinson said the difference was not statistically significant.

The researchers used a multistep strategy to help children reduce the time spent watching TV and playing video games. Students first kept track of the amount of time spent in such activities, and were then challenged to turn off the television completely for 10 days -- no favorite programs, no videos and no video games.

Afterward, students were encouraged to spend no more than seven hours a week in front of the television. Each family received an electronic television budgeter to help them stay within the limits. The children were also taught to become more selective in their viewing and game choices, and to advocate reduced media usage to friends and family members.

Robinson's co-authors on the study are Marta L. Wilde, MA, social science research assistant at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention (SCRDP); Lisa C. Navacruz, MD, a Stanford medical student at the time of the study; and K. Farish Haydel, BA, and Ann Varady, MS, scientific programmers at SCRDP.

The researchers are now conducting a long-term study of the curriculum in 12 Bay Area schools. They intend to return one year after the intervention program ends to see if the pattern of reduced TV and video game usage persists and whether the children are less aggressive than they were when the study began.

"Our hope is that the effects will persist over time," said Robinson.