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Antisocial behaviour and too much TV
Long-term antisocial behaviour may be linked to excessive television viewing in childhood. That is the suggestion of new research published online in the journal Pediatrics, which found children and adolescents who spend lots of time in front of the TV are more likely to engage in criminal activity when they are older.
A team from the University of Otago in New Zealand looked at the TV consumption of around 1,000 young people and discovered those who watched the box for longer periods were at greater risk of having a criminal conviction and of developing antisocial personality traits.
Indeed, it was shown that the likelihood of having such a conviction rose by 30 per cent for every hour a child spends in front of the TV on a normal weeknight.
Bob Hancox, Associate Professor of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the learning institute, said: "While we're not saying that television causes all antisocial behaviour, our findings do suggest that reducing TV viewing could go some way towards reducing rates of antisocial behaviour in society."
However, the British Chartered Psychologist Dr Barrie Gunter is wary of drawing firm conclusions from this research:
"The latest published findings from the Dunedin birth cohort study in New Zealand have headlined with the statement that greater amounts of television viewing in childhood are associated with increased risk of engaging in criminal behaviour as an adult. This study has followed the development of around 1,000 people born in Dunedin in 1972-3. This cohort has been surveyed every two years since the age of five.
"More childhood viewing was also linked to display of more aggressive personality traits and antisocial behaviour patterns in adulthood. Concerns about the causes of criminal and antisocial behaviour are understandable, but far too often television has been an easy target for those seeking quick, high profile fixes to this important social problem. Despite being published in the prestigious American journal Pediatrics, can we accept what we are told here at face value? There are a number of weaknesses in the research itself.
"First, we have no information about the nature of the cohort members' viewing diets other than estimates of how much time they purportedly spent watching at different points in their childhood. As previous research on this topic has indicated however in order to understand whether televiison can influence viewers' criminal and violent tendencies we need to know what kinds of programmes they usually watch and not simply how much they consume. From a theoretical standpoint, if televised violence does influence viewers, there are specific psychological mechanisms through which this takes place. In this context it is critical to know about the forms of violent portrayals in programmes to which individuals have been exposed. For all we know, many of the heavier viewers of New Zealand television here watched only programmes that contained no depictions of violence. If this is so there would be no reason theoretically to presume that television could directly impose any instrumental changes on the way young viewers will turn out as adults.
"Second, the measures of exposure to television that were used in this research are problematic. Until the cohort members were aged 11, there was reliance on parental reports of the children's viewing habits. After this, the young respondents provided their own crude self-estimates of how many hours per week they viewed. However, we know that both these kinds of estimates can be inaccurate to the point where they have little value as legitimate measures of actual behaviour.
"There is a huge body of published work about the effects of media violence that has accumulated over many decades. Much of the evidence has indicated that exposure to televised violence can impart lessons to young viewers about the use of violence and a subset of these young people internalise these messages, and a further sub-set might at some point retrieve these internalised scripts and act them out. To ascertain the scale and nature of such effects though we need to collect a great deal more information about viewing behaviour and personal violent tendencies that has been effectively validated before we can begin to draw conclusions with any level of confidence about such complex processes.
"This latest research from New Zealand has taken advantage of a rare opportunity to engage in a longitudinal analysis of the psychological development of a group of people from birth to early adulthood. Such opportunities come along quite seldom. It is unfortunate when they do, as in this case, that data quality often undermines their ability to demonstrate relationships between variables in which we can have confidence."
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