CWRU Study Links Heavy TV Viewing To Psychological Trauma

July 22, 1997

In a study of 2,244 Northeast Ohio children ages 8 to 14, watching television more than six hours a day was found to be associated with significantly elevated levels of psychological trauma, according to a Case Western Reserve University researcher. Among the heaviest TV viewers, one-third of the girls and one-fourth of the boys scored in the clinical range for one or more symptoms of psychological trauma.

"These children are at high risk for having a serious problem and should be assessed by a mental health professional," cautions Mark I. Singer, a professor of social work at CWRU's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Nearly one-fourth of the boys and one-fifth of the girls watch more than six hours of television daily, he reports.

Singer used the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children to measure the youngsters' levels of anxiety, depression, anger, posttraumatic stress and dissociation. For each of these symptoms, girls in the heaviest viewer group scored in the clinical range at two to five times the rate of girls who viewed six hours or less. Fully 33.5 percent of heavy viewers among girls were in the clinical range for one or more symptoms.

The youngsters in the study were third through eighth grade students at 11 schools in a small Northeast Ohio city, a rural district, and in Cleveland. Fifty-one percent were girls and 49 percent boys. Their ethnic classifications were 57 percent white, 33 percent African-American, 5 percent Hispanic and 9 percent other.

The findings do not indicate a causal connection between heavy television viewing and psychological trauma, but rather a correlation that may be partly due to "self selection," Singer says. "Television is a great way to numb out, to escape," he explains. "Kids who have pre-existing depression or anxiety can literally numb themselves and make problems go away temporarily by watching large amounts of television."

However, other studies have found that long hours of passive TV viewing ultimately increase levels of psychological trauma, he adds. "When you watch hours and hours of television, it doesn't lift your depression," he says. "It makes it even worse."

Singer and co-researcher David I. Miller, an assistant professor at the Mandel School, asked the children about their program preferences and found clear gender differences. Shows that have lots of action and fighting were ranked highest among the boys (44 percent). Girls most often preferred funny shows (38 percent) and music video programs (29 percent), while just nine percent of them favored shows with action and fighting.

The researchers found significant correlations between program preferences and levels of anger and aggression.

"Both boys and girls who preferred shows with lots of action and fighting -- the high-violence programs -- had significantly higher anger scores compared to other students," Singer says. "They also reported more aggression towards others."

The researchers found significant correlations between television viewing habits and levels of parental monitoring based on seven criteria such as whether the parents set and enforce curfews, if they know where their children are at all times, and if they know who their child's friends are.

Children who are not closely monitored watch significantly more television than those who are, and more of them prefer shows with lots of action and fighting or music video shows. "For example, 58 percent of the girls who report low parental monitoring preferred violent TV or music video television, while half as many, or 29 percent, of the highly monitored girls preferred such shows," Singer says.

Besides TV viewing habits, the study asked whether the children's households had local, over-the-air channels; basic cable television; cable with premium channels; or satellite dish reception.

Less than 1 percent do not have a television, while 70 percent have TV with cable or a satellite dish. Fifty-five percent have cable with movie channels or a satellite dish. Based on other surveys, Singer notes, "Violent program content is related to the type of hook-up you have." On premium cable stations, 85 percent of programs contain violence, compared to 59 percent of programs on basic cable, and 44 percent of programs on broadcast networks, he says.

As with Singer's earlier study of 3,700 high school students, the researchers also studied the children's exposure to violence (either as victims, witnesses or perpetrators) and the correlation of this exposure to psychological trauma levels.

Their study is funded by the Ohio Department of Mental Health, the Treu-Mart Fund, the Sedgwick Fund and the Nord Family Foundation.


Toni Searle,
Editor, "Campus News, CWRU
Phone: 216-368-4443
Fax: 216-368-3546

Case Western Reserve University

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