MONDAY, April 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Watching too much violent TV and playing too many violent video games takes a toll on children's social and physical development, researchers report.
"We found that the more TV they watch, the less time they spend with their friends," said researcher David S. Bickham, a research scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. However, "this relationship really only holds true for violent TV," he added.
Another study found that violent video games appear to instill poor attitudes in children when it comes to their own health, while promoting risky behaviors. A third report found that mature-rated video games often include explicit sexual imagery and language content not included on warning labels.
These and other studies devoted to the media's effects on children appear in April's special themed issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In the first report, Bickham and a colleague collected data on 1,356 children ages 6 to 8 and examined how watching violent TV affected social integration.
They found increasing amounts of social isolation among children with higher levels of exposure to violent TV programming. To explain this finding, Bickham speculated that, since violent TV is linked with aggressive behavior in children, it makes it harder for these children to get along with other children. "Kids are watching violent TV, they are becoming more aggressive, and that aggression is making it more difficult for them to interact with their peers," he said.
In the second report, Sonya S. Brady, a postdoctorate fellow in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and a colleague tested the reaction of 100 college men, 18 to 21 years old, to two video games,Grand Theft Auto III or The Simpsons: Hit and Run.
"When the men played the more violent video game, Grand Theft Auto, versus the less violent video game, The Simpsons: Hit and Run, they had greater increases in blood pressure, and those who played Grand Theft Auto had more negative emotions and hostile feelings," Brady said.
In addition, those who played Grand Theft Auto had more permissive attitudes about alcohol and marijuana use, Brady said. "Video games cannot only influence aggression, but might also influence attitudes toward risk-taking behavior," she said.
Brady's team also found that those who played the violent game were less likely to cooperate with others after playing the game. "Media violence may predispose young people and adolescents not only to greater health-risk behavior, but also toward tension and conflict in their social interaction with others," she said.
In the third study, a team led by Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that 81 percent of mature-rated video games have violent or sexual content not noted on the label.
In its study, Thompson's team played 25 percent of the mature-rated video games available.
"We found that the games contained depictions of substances or sexual themes or profanity that was not noted," Thompson said. These findings mirror findings the same team has noted in other video games rated for younger children, she said.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rates these games, doesn't actually play them, Thompson noted. Instead, it bases its rating only on material provided by the manufacturer, she said.
"Parents really need to pay attention to the actual experience of the game and to what their kids are seeing, because the content descriptors are not necessarily providing full information about what's in the games," Thompson said.
Other reports in the same journal issue found trouble with what children and teens are watching on TV. One report said that children exposed to violent media had a significant long-term increase in aggressive behaviors, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and arousal levels.
And a fifth study found that children who watch more TV eat more and gain more weight than children who watch less. Another report revealed that, among teens whose parents expressed disapproval of teen sex, those who watch more than two hours of television a day may begin having sex at a younger age than those who don't.
Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis is director of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington and the coauthor of a journal editorial commenting on the studies. He believes that children's media is "really a public health issue. This is not simply about an industry and regulating an industry. It's about the health of our children."
Christakis said the challenge ahead is "to find ways to make media work positively for children. The real issue for parents and policymakers is how to make sure that this media environment serves our children's best interest."
Guidelines are needed for what makes up educational TV and video games, he said. "Guidelines should be based on solid evidence, and they should be enforced," he added.
In addition, Christakis thinks that advertising aimed at children should be outlawed. "We need to consider such action once we recognize media as a public health issue," he said. "We have to be bolder."
Christakis doesn't believe that this is a free-speech issue. "We do limit speech," he said. "We do have Federal Trade Commission laws regulating what advertisers are able to say and claim," he said. "It's really a matter of using existing laws and putting teeth into them."
For more on media violence and its effects on children, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.