A new study in the March issue of Developmental Psychology found women who watched a lot of violence on TV as children were four times more likely to have shoved, punched, beaten or choked someone who made them angry, compared to other women.
The study, by University of Michigan psychologists, also found men who watched a lot of violent television as kids were more likely to have been convicted of a crime, responded to an insult by shoving, and had a moving traffic violation.
However, the connection between aggressive men who watched a lot of TV violence as boys has been repeatedly established by a multitude of studies, says John P. Murray, a psychologist who has participated in many of those studies for the past three decades.
It's the findings about girls that makes this new report interesting, says Murray, a professor of developmental psychology at Kansas State University.
"They [the Michigan researchers] find the effects for both boys and girls, which has not been done before," Murray says. "The reason probably is that this is an entirely different era, and girls are more like boys now."
The new study was based on a follow-up of a 1977 study of 557 children, aged 6 to 10, in the Chicago area. The children reported which violent TV shows they watched most, whether they identified with the aggressive characters, and whether they thought the violent scenes were realistic.
The Michigan researchers tracked down 329 of the boys and girls, now in their 20s, and asked them, their friends and their spouses about their tendency for aggressive behavior. State records were also searched to find criminal records and traffic violations.
"For both boys and girls, habitual early exposure to TV violence is predictive of more aggression by them later in life, independent of their own initial childhood aggression," study author L. Rowell Huesmann says in a statement.
The programs that were most likely to induce violent behavior were ones in which the children identified with the violent person; violent behavior was rewarded; and the violence was life-like, the researchers say.
Except for the insights on women, this is the sort of report that has been done since 1972, on roughly a 10-year cycle, Murray says. He worked on a 1972 U.S. Surgeon General's report on children and TV violence. It was followed by a 1982 National Institute of Mental Health report, and a 1992 American Psychology Association report by a task force that included Murray.
"The message is clear," he says. "Viewing violence is causally related to aggressive behavior in both boys and girls."
The new report is also impressive because it was led by Huesmann and Leonard D. Eron, who are "the masters of this kind of research," Murray says.
The potential threat to children has grown, Murray adds, because "television is more violent and more graphic now." Watching such scenes not only encourages violent behavior by also induces fear and makes children less sensitive to the effects of violence, he says.
The Michigan researchers recommend that parents watch television with their children and monitor their viewing habits. The V-chip system for controlling what is seen is useful, they say, but they would like to see a rating system based on program contents.
"I would tell parents to be very cautious about what their children watch," Murray says.
For more on children and television violence, visit the America Psychological Association or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.