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Too Much Tube Time Can Turn Kids Into Bullies

Study finds a connection in children as young as 4

MONDAY, April 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Four-year-olds who spend a lot of time watching TV are more likely to become bullies in grade school, new research contends.

"This has been shown for older children but never for children this young," said Frederick J. Zimmerman, assistant professor of health services at the University of Washington and lead author of a study appearing in the April issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

"Four-year-old kids in general are not watching The Sopranos. They're watching cartoons, but they're very violent. This is a major message that parents need to be aware of," he added.

The study also found that children who receive emotional support and cognitive stimulation -- reading or play time with parents, for example -- are less likely to become bullies in grade school.

However, some experts believe there were flaws with the study.

"They [the researchers] don't really address the issue that things they didn't measure could be causing both television-watching and bullying," said Dr. Christopher Lucas, director of New York University's Early Childhood Service.

For example, he said, parents who don't set and enforce rules -- such as limits on TV time -- are more likely to end up with children who have conduct and aggression problems.

As recent tragic events have shown, bullying is a major problem in schools and affects an estimated 30 percent of school-age children in the United States, the researchers said.

"Bullying is such a problem because it does lead to other things, both with victims and perpetrators," said Zimmerman, co-director of the University of Washington's Child Health Institute. "It's a pretty major issue for schools now."

Still, according to Zimmerman and his colleagues, experts don't know much about environmental factors, particularly in the home environment, that might propel children to bullying.

For the study, the researchers looked at data on 1,266 4-year-olds who were enrolled in a national study. They focused specifically on emotional support from parents, cognitive stimulation and the amount of television watched, and then compared that with bullying at ages 6 through 11.

Each of the three factors contributed separately to a child's chances of becoming a bully, Zimmerman said.

The study found that children who watched 5 hours of TV a day were 25 percent more likely to become bullies than children who watched no television or those who watched 3.2 hours a day. And children who watched very high levels of TV had double the risk of becoming bullies.

Mothers determined whether their children were labeled as bullies. Children who received early emotional support were 33 percent less likely to become bullies than children receiving below-average support.

Similarly, children receiving good cognitive stimulation were about 33 percent less likely to end up in the bully category, the researchers found.

"If you expose kids to reading and stories and museums, that helps them to control their emotions better and makes it less likely that they're going to be bullies," Zimmerman said.

The fact that the study results were based on mothers' descriptions of their children was not a problem, Zimmerman said.

Others, however, felt that was a limitation of the study.

"The first basic step of any psychiatric survey is to make sure people are asking and responding to the same thing," Lucas said. "Bullying behaviors ... might actually be a very difficult thing for parents to talk about."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more on bullying.

SOURCES: Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., assistant professor of health services, and co-director, Child Health Institute, University of Washington, Seattle; Christopher Lucas, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, New York University Child Study Center, and director, Early Childhood Service, New York University, New York City; April 2005 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine
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