TV Bullies

TV Bullies Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Childhood bullying is an age-old problem that’s drawing more and more concern from parents. A recent study identified several factors that influence a child’s chance of becoming a bully.


Predicting and preventing bullying. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Four-year-old children who watch a lot of television are more likely to become bullies later in life. That’s according to University of Washington public health professor Fred Zimmerman.


What’s interesting about that is that four-year-olds are not typically watching adult violent fare, the way adolescents might be.

Although the study didn’t look at what the kids were watching, he suspects even cartoon violence might be a bad influence. The good news is that parents can lower a child’s risk of becoming a bully with emotional support and intellectual stimulation. But Zimmerman warns that too much TV appears to cancel out these benefits. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

A number of studies have looked at the relationship between graphic violence and bullying. It’s not surprising to learn that older kids who watch a lot of violent television are more likely to be bullies.

This study is different because the children involved are much younger. As Zimmerman points out, most four-year-olds don’t watch violent adult television shows. In fact, the study didn’t measure or judge what the kids were watching at all. It just measured the time the children spent watching any kind of TV. What’s more, the researchers studied the effect of TV-watching at age four on bullying behavior later in life (ages 6-11).

One of the difficult things about studies like these is figuring out how to measure tricky concepts. Measuring the number of hours a kid watches TV is the easy part. You’ve also got to measure bullying. These researchers boiled it down to a simple report from the parents. The parents were asked at each visit if their child had bullied anyone recently. Although some parents may have lied or not known about their child’s behavior, Zimmerman says this method appears fairly reliable. That is, the percentage of parents who report their children as bullies is about the same as the percentage reported by others, such as teachers, researchers, or kids themselves.

Measuring “emotional support” and “intellectual stimulation” are harder still. To evaluate emotional support, Zimmerman’s team measured a variety of factors, including how often the children ate meals with their parents and whether or not the parents spanked their children. For intellectual stimulation, the researchers measured how often parents read to their children, played with them, or took them out to museums, concerts, and other cultural activities.

Obviously, it’s impossible to come up with a perfect measure of these factors. The researchers have to assume that by measuring a few important aspects of emotional support or intellectual stimulation, they’re getting a rough idea of the big picture. Still, measurements like these are always open for debate.

One important aspect of this study is that the effect of TV watching was independent of the effects of emotional support and intellectual stimulation. In other words, even children who received strong emotional support and intellectual stimulation at home were more likely to become bullies if they watched more TV. If this were not true, one could argue that TV itself doesn’t lead to bullying, and that watching TV is just a symptom of having parents who aren’t emotionally or intellectually involved. The question now is whether the specific shows the kids watched made a difference.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What did the researchers measure in this study?
  2. Can you think of other ways to scientifically measure “emotional support” and “intellectual stimulation”?
  3. Do you think it’s possible to measure complicated ideas like these? Why or why not?
  4. Suppose the study found that the more TV the kids watched at age four, the more they watched when they were older. How might this affect the way you interpret the results?

For Educators

In the lesson Hall Monitors: School Reporters Probe the Heart of School Violence, from the New York Times Learning Network, students investigate the incidence of different types of violence that occurs in their schools. Students conduct background research and create a list of focused interview questions.

The American Psychological Association publishes The Effects of Televsion Violence on Children, testimony of APA Member Dale Kunkel, PhD, before the U.S. Senate.

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