When 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