Boys and girls who watch a lot of violence on television have a heightened risk of aggressive adult behavior, including spouse abuse and criminal offenses, no matter how they act in childhood, a new study says.
Experts say the study is important because it included hundreds of participants and showed the effect in women as well as men.
The participants were interviewed at ages 6 to 9 and again in their early 20s, making the study one of the few to follow children into adulthood to gauge long-term effects of televised violence.
The findings are presented in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology by psychologists L. Rowell Huesmann and colleagues at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
Huesmann said televised violence suggests to young children that aggression is appropriate in some situations, especially when it is used by charismatic heroes. It also erodes a natural aversion to violence, he said.
He recommended that parents restrict viewing of violent TV and movies by children.
The analysis argued against the idea that aggressive children seek out TV violence, or that the findings were due to the participants' socioeconomic status or intelligence or their parents' child rearing practices.
The study involved 329 adults who were surveyed as children in the late 1970s. Researchers interviewed them again as adults, along with their spouses or friends, and checked crime records.
As children, the participants were rated for exposure to televised violence after they chose eight favorite shows from 80 popular programs for their age group and indicated how often they watched them. The programs were assessed by researchers for amount of physical violence. Programs such as Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man and Road Runner cartoons were deemed very violent.
As young adults, men in the study who had scored in the top 20 percent on childhood exposure were about twice as likely as other men to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their wives during an argument in the year preceding the interview. Women who had scored in the top 20 percent were about twice as likely as other women to have thrown something at their husbands.
These "high TV-violence viewers" were also more likely than other study participants in the previous year to have shoved somebody in anger; punched, beaten or choked an adult; or committed a crime or a moving traffic violation.
In addition to questions on viewing habits, the participants had been asked as kids how much they identified with violent TV characters and how realistic they judged violent TV shows to be.
Researchers found that high ratings on any of the three childhood measures predicted higher ratings of overall aggression in adulthood. It made no difference how aggressive the participants had been as children.
Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said not all studies find a relationship between TV viewing and violent behavior.
The American Psychological Association, however, has concluded that viewing violence on TV or other mass media does promote aggressive behavior.