Can watching TV as a toddler increase your child’s chances of being bullied later in life?
A recently-published study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Too Much Television? Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Televiewing and Later Self-reports of Victimization by Sixth Grade Classmates, found a strong correlation between excessive television viewing in the toddler years and the likelihood of that child’s peer-victimization in sixth grade.
Furthermore, each successive increase in television viewing in the toddler years led to an increase in the rate of later victimization.
Study Links Television Viewing to Socialization Problems in Children
The study involved 991 girls and 1006 boys participating in the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. When the children were 29 months old, parents were asked to document their children’s television viewing time. Children watched an average of 8.82 hours of television each week, well within the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation of no more than 1 to 2 hours per day.
The researchers checked back in with the same children when they were in sixth grade, or about 12 years of age. This time, the children were asked to report how many hours of television they watched per week, as well as answer a questionnaire meant to determine their rate of victimization.
Researchers asked the children to indicate on separate 3-point scales (never, once or twice, often) how often other children were mean to them, called them names, didn’t let them play, physically harmed them, said bad things about them, made fun of them, or forced them to give up something that belonged to them.
The results showed that not only were children more likely to face later socialization problems in correlation to the amount of television they watched at 29 months, but children who had watched TV in excess of AAP guidelines as toddlers were subject to a higher level of victimization at age 12.
Watching Television Creates a “Time Deficit” for More Enriching Activities
The authors attribute the effect to a number of possibilities. Probably the simplest explanation is that time spent watching television is time not spent playing and interacting with family members and peers.
As Dr. Carla Pagani, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at the University of Montreal, explained to Decoded Science, “Too much time in front of the telly creates a time-debt for other enriching activities. In early childhood children need live interaction to help their brains develop and to maximize their emotional intelligence. It is like IQ, we are born with a potential, but need interactions with people and objects in the environment to fully develop it. More television time means less time for play and less time in active social exchanges of ideas and information.”
Another possible explanation for the connection between amount of television viewing as a toddler and level of victimization as a pre-teen is the lack of practiced eye contact. A lot of social information is conveyed through body language. Dr. Pagani elaborates, “Eye contact is the most powerful form of communication apart from talking, and one reinforces the other.”
Some TV shows, like Dora the Explorer and Little Einsteins, encourage audience participation by asking questions or giving children tasks to do while watching. However, these attempts at interaction are not the same as communicating with peers and adults. The television cannot respond based on what the children watching do or say, and the characters’ facial expressions will not change in reaction to what a child sitting on the couch is doing.
Boys Face Higher Rates of Peer Victimization Than Girls
Curiously, even though boys did not watch more television than girls, they faced higher rates of victimization. The researchers cannot explain this result, but it may be connected to boys’ heavier use of all video media. The Too Much Television study found that pre-teens of both sexes watched only 3.5 hours of TV per week. However, the study did not address their access to other types of video media, such as cell phones, video games and the web.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that in 2010, children ages 8-18 spent an average of 7 ½ hours each today consuming some type of media. The children in the Too Much Television study would have turned 12 around the same year, so the mismatch between television viewing time and all screen media time is especially important.
Additionally, while almost all children ages 12 -17 play video games, boys play more frequently and with greater duration than girls, according to a Pew Research study. If there is indeed a link between lost interpersonal socialization time and frequency of screen time, other media than television may be adding to the effect and contributing to the finding that boys are victimized more than girls.
While it certainly makes sense that parents should be aware of the AAP guidelines as far as television viewing time is concerned and ensure that young children spend most of their time in more enriching, less sedentary and solitary activities, the authors of the study found several confounding factors.
How much television a child watched at age 12, cognitive ability, gender and a child’s ability for self-control also independently influenced their likelihood of victimization.
Parents Should Be Aware of Television Viewing Recommendations
The question of whether or not the effects of television viewing in the toddler years can be counteracted by later emphasis on interpersonal social skills still remains. Do children who watched a lot of television as toddlers continue to watch a lot of television in the tween years? Is there a compounding effect to repeated heavy television viewing? In other words, if a child is a heavy television viewer at age 2, but spends most of his or her time engaged in school activities, sports and clubs at older ages, can they counteract the TV effect?
The bottom line for parents, according to Dr. Pagani, is to “be aware of the AAP recommendations and get your kids the opportunities for less intellectually, socially, and physically sedentary pastimes.” And if children are past toddlerhood, it is not too late to change their television viewing habits, get children involved in more enriching pursuits, and makeup for the social deficit created earlier in life.