Children who watch excessive amounts of television are more likely to have criminal convictions and show aggressive personality traits as adults, a New Zealand study has found.

The University of Otago study tracked the viewing habits of about 1,000 children born in the early 1970s from when they were aged five to 15, then followed up when the subjects were 26 years old to assess potential impacts.

The research, published in the US journal “Pediatrics” this week, found a strong correlation between childhood exposure to television and anti-social behaviour in young adults.

“The risk of having a criminal conviction by early adulthood increased by about 30 percent with every hour that children spent watching television on an average weeknight,” co-author Bob Hancox said.

The study also found excessive TV viewing was linked to aggressive personality traits and an increased tendency to experience negative emotions.

It said the links remained statistically significant even when issues such as intelligence, social status and parental control were factored in.

“While we're not saying that television causes all anti-social behaviour, our findings do suggest that reducing television viewing could go some way towards reducing rates of anti-social behaviour in society,” Hancox said.

He said the findings supported the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children should watch no more than one to two hours of quality television programming a day.

The study said it was possible that children learned anti-social behaviour by watching it on TV, leading to emotional desensitisation and the development of aggressive behaviour.

But it said the content of what children were viewing was not the only factor, highlighting the social isolation experienced by those who spent hours watching the box.

“It is plausible that excessive television viewing contributes to anti-social behaviour in ways unrelated to violent content,” it said.

“These mechanisms could include reduced social interaction with peers and parents, poorer educational achievement, and increased risk of unemployment.”

Hancox said the study concentrated on children's viewing habits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the advent of personal computers, and further research was warranted into how such technology affected subsequent behaviour.

“If you're playing a computer game that not only exposes you to a lot of violence but actually simulates shooting people then that may be even worse, but I don't have any data on that,” he told Radio New Zealand. - AFP

* Upping the educational value of what young children watch on television and choosing to avoid violence-prone programming may help improve their behaviour, according to a US study that looked at several hundred preschoolers.

It can be hard to encourage families of preschoolers to turn off the television, but there are plenty of high-quality shows that promote learning and positive relationships rather than violence, researchers wrote in Pediatrics.

“Although clearly kids watch too much, equally concerning is that they watch poor quality shows,” said lead researcher Dimitri Christakis, from the University of Washington in Seattle.

His initial survey of parents of three- to five-year-old children showed the children often watched everything from aggression-laden cartoons to full-length violent movies that are “totally inappropriate,” Christakis told Reuters Health.

For their study, he and his colleagues randomly split 565 preschools into two groups. In one group, parents recorded notes about the children's normal TV viewing, without receiving any guidelines to reduce or change those habits.

In the other group, researchers made visits and calls and sent monthly newsletters encouraging parents to replace violent TV with educational programming - including specific program schedules and recommended shows, such as Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Curious George.

“It's not just about reducing the exposure to on-screen violence, it's about promoting pro-social programming,” Christakis said. “We're actually them examples of good behaviour, of how to cooperate, how to share.”

After six an 12 months, parents reported their children's angry, aggressive or anxious behaviours on a questionnaire. At both time points, children in the TV intervention group had slightly fewer problems than those in the comparison group.

Low-income boys seemed to benefit most from the change in programming.

“The point is, this is something that is as effective as other things we do to try to modify behaviour in children, and it's fairly simple,” Christakis said.

“It's not just about turning the TV off, it's about changing the channel,” Christakis said.

But other researchers said that not all studies have shown violent programming leads to aggression and behavioural problems, and that the new study doesn't shut the door on that question. - Reuters