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What spurs people to become violent? Research has shown many factors may contribute to violent behavior, such as poverty, parental neglect, and neighborhood violence, but a new study has rekindled the debate about the role of television and aggression. > For the past 35 years, most studies focused on the connection between televised violence and hostility in children. Now, researchers at Columbia University, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Mount Sinai Medical Center have found a link between adolescent television watching and adult aggression. > The study found that watching more than one hour of television daily may make adolescents more likely to commit violent acts when they are adults. The study, which appeared in the March 29 issue of Science, followed children in 707 families in upstate New York over a 17-year period. > Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, assistant professor of clinical psychology (in psychiatry) and lead author of the study, spoke with In Vivo writer Matthew Dougherty about the study.

What does the study show and why is it important?

Our study is the first to indicate that television viewing during adolescence is associated with increased risk for aggressive behavior during early adulthood. We investigated whether a variety of different variables, such as parental neglect, parental education, poverty, neighborhood violence, psychiatric disorders, and prior aggression, were associated with both television viewing and aggressive behavior. I think we took a more systematic approach than previous research because other studies did not assess such a wide range of variables.

We found that 22 percent of adolescents who watched between one and three hours of television daily committed aggressive acts as young adults. Only about 6 percent of adolescents who watched less than one hour a day did so.

How did you do the study?

We interviewed mothers and their children in their homes when the offspring were 14, 16, and 22 years of age. A final assessment was conducted when they were 30 years old, which was done in the year 2000. We analyzed a variety of variables in the population, such as income levels, family education levels, or whether parents neglected the children, for an association between the factor and future violent actions. What we found was that television viewing during adolescence was associated with future violent acts in rich and poor children and in children from high school-educated or college-educated environments. Criminal arrest and charge data were obtained in 2000 from the FBI and New York state.

How do you know that your data on television viewing habits are accurate?

The findings are likely to be reliable because data from both offspring and maternal reports were combined. Data regarding current TV viewing were obtained at each assessment rather than retrospectively.

Did any of the findings surprise you?

I was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. I wouldn't have expected to see an almost four-fold increase in aggressive behavior in youths who watched more than one hour of TV a day compared with those who watched less than one hour. It was also interesting that the effect of television viewing depends on the viewer's age and gender. There was a stronger association and future risk for aggression in males at age 14 compared with females of age 14. There was a stronger association for future aggression risk for females at age 22 compared with males at age 22, although there was still a significant risk for females during adolescence. Aggressive behavior included physical assaults, physical fighting that resulted in injuries, robberies, threats to injure another person, and use of a weapon to commit a crime.

Your study did not take into account how much violence is in the programs that adolescents watch. Explain your findings in light of this.

We looked at overall television viewing, which is a disadvantage because we can't make specific statements about specific programs. But we can say that overall TV viewing is associated with elevated risk for aggressive behavior. Violent acts are pervasive on TV. Sixty percent of all television programs contain some violence. It would be of interest for future studies to investigate differences in the specific kinds of aggressive behaviors that may result from watching different programming, such as professional wrestling or music videos that endorse violent behavior.

What do you say to the critics who say the study found only a weak effect?

The study shows a large effect. According to the commentary in Science that accompanied the study, the association between television viewing and aggression is almost as strong as that of smoking and lung cancer. Calling this link weak is reminiscent of the argument that was made denying that cigarette smoking led to lung cancer. Skeptics did not accept the findings for decades and there are still some skeptics who do not believe that smoking causes lung cancer.

Should any action be taken in light of your findings?

The American Medical Association two years ago called for a reduction of TV violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents shouldn't let their children watch more than one to two hours of TV a day. It would be helpful if the Surgeon General would reiterate or endorse that recommendation. Further, our findings suggest that these recommendations should perhaps be strengthened so that children would not be allowed to watch more than one hour of TV per day, at least through early adolescence. Reducing TV viewing also would increase levels of physical activity, something our young people need.