Violent TV viewing in the preschool years can lead to later issues, research shows
The Sector > Research > Violent TV viewing in the preschool years can lead to later issues, research shows

Violent TV viewing in the preschool years can lead to later issues, research shows

by Freya Lucas

November 17, 2022

Children who watch violent TV during their preschool years can experience a higher risk of psychological and academic impairment in later years, researchers from the Université de Montréal have found. 


Led by Professor Linda Pagani, the study was recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and provides clarity around to what extent exposure to typical violent screen content in early childhood — a particularly critical time in brain development — can predict later psychological distress and academic risks


“The detection of early modifiable factors that influence a child’s later well-being is an important target for individual and community health initiatives, and psychological adjustment and academic motivation are essential elements in the successful transition to adolescence,” the Professor added.


Researchers wanted to see the long-term effect of typical violent screen exposure in preschoolers on normal development, based on several key indicators of youth adjustment at age 12 years. 


To do this, Professor Pagani and her team examined the violent screen content that parents reported their children viewing between ages three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years, and then conducted a follow-up when the children reached 12.


At the follow up phase researchers took two reports – one from teachers and one from the children themselves. 


“Compared to their same-sex peers who were not exposed to violent screen content, boys and girls who were exposed to typical violent content on television were more likely to experience subsequent increases in emotional distress,” Professor Pagani said. 


“They also experienced decreases in classroom engagement, academic achievement and academic motivation by the end of the sixth grade,” she added.


Professor Pagani and co-authors Jessica Bernard and Caroline Fitzpatrick came to their conclusions after examining data from a cohort of children born in 1997 or 1998 who are part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, coordinated by the Institut de la statistique du Québec.


Close to 2,000 children were part of the violent TV study — 978 girls and 998 boys — with researchers analysing the data to identify any significant link between problems with those aspects and violent content they were exposed to at preschool, while trying to account for as many possible biases and confounding influences as possible.


“Preschool children tend to identify with characters on TV and treat everything they see as real,” the Professor explained. “They are especially vulnerable to humorous depictions of glorified heroes and villains who use violence as a justified means to solve problems.”


Repeated exposure to rapidly paced, adrenaline-inducing action sequences and captivating special effects could reinforce beliefs, attitudes and impressions that habitual violence in social interactions is ‘ normal’. When children ‘mis-learn’ essential social skills through emulating this behaviour, it can make it difficult for them to then fit in at school. 


“Just like witnessing violence in real life, being repeatedly exposed to a hostile and violent world populated by sometimes grotesque-looking creatures could trigger fear and stress and lead these children to perceive society as dangerous and frightening,” Ms Bernard continued, “and this can lead to habitually overreacting in ambiguous social situations.”


Prospective associations between preschool exposure to violent televiewing and psycho-social and academic risks in early adolescent boys and girls was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Access the work here

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