A school-based program that discourages television and video game use makes grade-school children less aggressive, a Stanford University study suggests.

While previous research has linked exposure to media violence with increased aggression, few potential solutions have been evaluated, according to the study’s authors.

Their findings indicate “that the effects of televised violence in kids are really reversible,” said Dr. Thomas Robinson, the lead author and an assistant professor of pediatrics.

The study, published in the January edition of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, involved third- and fourth-grade children at two comparable public elementary schools in San Jose, Calif.

At one school, 120 participants received no intervention and served as a control group. At the other, 105 children received 18 lessons, 30 to 50 minutes long, over six months on reducing the use of television, videotapes, and video games. Researchers trained regular classroom teachers, who led the program.

Children initially reported the amount of television, videos, and video games they watched. They were challenged to abstain for 10 days, and then to watch no more than seven hours a week.

Households involved had their televisions hooked up to a device that could prevent the set from being turned on if the child exceeded a limit that parents were encouraged to establish.

At the outset, the youngsters reported an average of about 15.5 hours of television viewing weekly, five hours of viewing videotapes, and three hours of playing video games.

That fell by about one-third by the end of the course, to an average of about nine hours of television viewing, 3.5 hours of videotapes, and 1.5 hours of video games. Content of the programs and games kids watched was not assessed, though the authors assumed some were violent.

Children were asked to rate their classmates’ aggressiveness at the beginning of the study, in September 1996, and at the end, the following April, identifying such things as who started fights or often said “Give me that!”

Peer reports of aggression were similar at the two schools at the outset. By the study’s end, there were about 25 percent fewer such reports among participants at the intervention school compared with the control group, Robinson said.

Researchers also measured changes in verbal and physical aggression by regularly observing the playground behavior of about 50 participants at each school. At the end of the study, there were fewer observed incidents in the intervention group compared with the control group, he said.

Components of an anti-aggression program

According to the report, the teacher-led intervention lessons were taught during the first two months of the study. Early lessons included self-monitoring and reporting of television, videotape, and video game use.

The self-reporting was intended to motivate children to want to reduce the time they spent in these activities.

“These lessons were followed by a ‘TV Turnoff,’ during which children were challenged to watch no television or videotapes and play no video games for 10 days,” researchers said.

After the turnoff, children were encouraged to follow a seven-hour-per-week television, videotape, and video game budget.

To help with budgeting, each household also received an electronic television time manager from TV Allowance, of Miami, Fla. And, another set of lessons taught children to become “intelligent viewers” by using their viewing and video game time more selectively.

An effective anti-aggression program requires parental involvement as well, researchers said.

“Parent newsletters were designed to motivate parents to help their children stay within their budgets, and suggested strategies for limiting television, videotape, and video game use for the entire family,” said the report. “We allowed parents to decide whether to include computer use in their child’s budget.”

The authors acknowledge limitations of their study, including that they only looked at two schools and didn’t assess whether there was any violence in what kids watched.

But Dr. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, a children’s violence expert not involved in the study, said the findings are in line with research suggesting overexposure to even nonviolent media can make kids more aggressive.

That theory is plausible because children who watch lots of television or video games may spend less time interacting with others and thus may have fewer social skills, said Christoffel, a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University.

She praised the study for bolstering “the notion that there is a relationship between media exposure and childhood behavior and that it is modifiable.” However, she questioned whether the decreases noted in the study will be lasting.

Robinson said he’s testing the program’s effects in a longer and larger study of about 900 students at 12 schools, which may answer whether it results in long-term reductions in aggression.

Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine:

Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH
Department of Pediatrics and Center for Research in Disease Prevention
Stanford University School of Medicine
1000 Welch Rd
Palo Alto, CA 94304

TV Allowance
5605 SW 74th Street
South Miami, FL 33143
phone (800) 231-4410