Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Programmed to bully

New research claims that 'Four-year-old children who watch more television than average are more likely to become bullies'. Researchers in Seattle found that children who went on to bully between the ages of six and 11 watched five hours of TV per day, almost two hours more than those who did not. Writing in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the team led by Dr Frederick Zimmerman said: 'Our results have some important implications. We have provided some empirical support to theories that suggest that bullying might arise out of cognitive deficits as well as emotional ones. We have added bullying to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing along with obesity, inattention and other types of aggression.'

What the news reports have failed to mention, in their rush to blame TV for yet another social problem, is that the effect found was so small as to be barely significant. The journal abstract notes: 'Each hour of television viewed per day at age 4 years was associated with a significant odds ratio of 1.06 for subsequent bullying.' In other words, children who watched TV for one hour a day more had a six per cent increased risk of being 'a bully'.

But there are plenty of other problems with this research. All the reporting is done by mothers, so what one mother considers to be bullying behaviour might be another mother's friendly horseplay. In fact, it must be extremely difficult to define what 'a bully' is for such a report. Does it mean violent behaviour? Would organising classmates to exclude a particular individual constitute bullying? Would someone who exhibits this behaviour at the age of six, but not at the age of eleven, fall into the category of a 'bully' for the purposes of this research?

Moreover, if there is a real correlation here, it has little to do with television as such. For example, watching television is a very passive activity. While not harmful in itself, it's a poor substitute for the social and intellectual engagement involved in play. Opportunities for free play are becoming increasingly restricted by parental fears. If some children then take longer to learn what is appropriate behaviour and what is not, that is hardly the fault of television but of the wider environment in which they grow up today.

That said, this particular paper also suggests a complete lack of historical perspective. Children have been picking on other children since time immemorial - and certainly a long time before the gogglebox was invented. Whether the amount of bullying going on is on the increase is surely impossible to know. However, we live in an age where the feeling of being a lonely, picked-upon individual is the very zeitgeist. No wonder there's money to research bullying. Nor is television alone in being blamed - the finger has been pointed at everything from mouthy footballers to food additives.

Television may be the source of innumberable bad programmes, but the evidence that it is responsible for society's ills is thin. Maybe it's time to pull the plug on this kind of research.

Early Cognitive Stimulation, Emotional Support, and Television Watching as Predictors of Subsequent Bullying Among Grade-School Children, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, April 2005

TV 'could create child bullies', BBC News, 4 April 2005

First published on spiked's Don't panic page

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