Young child watching television

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MONTREAL, Quebec — Kids as young as three who watch violent TV do worse in school into their teenage years, according to a new study.

Scientists from say toddlers exposed to violence on screen are less engaged and motivated in the classroom and get worse grades — even a decade later at the age of 12. They also end up being more emotionally distressed, according to the team.

“Preschool children tend to identify with characters on TV and treat everything they see as real,” says lead study author Professor Linda Pagani from the University of Montreal in a media release. “They are especially vulnerable to humorous depictions of glorified heroes and villains who use violence as a justified means to solve problems.”

“Repeated exposure to rapidly paced, adrenaline-inducing action sequences and captivating special effects could reinforce beliefs, attitudes and impressions that habitual violence in social interactions is ‘normal’. Mislearning essential social skills can make it difficult to fit in at school,” Pagani adds.

“For youth, transition to middle school already represents a crucial stage in their development as adolescents. Feeling sadness and anxiety and being at risk academically tends to complicate their situation.”

“Being exposed to more appropriate social situations, however, can help them develop essential social skills that will later be useful and ultimately play a key role in their personal and economic success,” the study author explains.

Kids start to ‘perceive society as dangerous and frightening’

Until now, the effect to which violent programs can affect children’s academic and emotional development has been unclear. For the study, researchers examined the violent screen content parents reported their children watched when they were between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years-old. They then followed up when the same children turned 12.

After the follow up, the team looked at what teachers observed and how children themselves viewed their emotional and academic progress. The parents of 978 girls and 998 boys in Quebec, Canada took part in the study. Some of the children, who were born between 1997 and 1998, watched violent TV while other did not.

When the children were 12, they and their teachers rated their psychosocial and academic achievement, motivation, and participation in classroom activities. The team looked for links between the two while adjusting their findings to take the influence of other variables into account.

“Just like witnessing violence in real life, being repeatedly exposed to a hostile and violent world populated by sometimes grotesque-looking creatures could trigger fear and stress and lead these children to perceive society as dangerous and frightening,” adds study co-author Dr. Jessica Bernard from Texas A&M University.

“And this can lead to habitually overreacting in ambiguous social situations.”

“In the preschool years, the number of hours in a day is limited, and the more children get exposed to aggressive interactions (on screens) the more they might think it normal to behave that way,” Bernard notes.

The findings are published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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