Five year-olds who watch TV for 3 or more hours a day have an increasingly higher risk of developing antisocial behaviors, such as stealing or fighting, by the age of 7.

However, the likelihood of this behavior is very small, according to the experts, who also found that the amount of time spent playing computer/electronic games had no affect on behavior.

The finding came from a new study that was published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Although lengthened screen viewing time has been associated with diverse behavioral and emotional issues in kids, the majority of prior research has centered only on TV and has been conducted in the U.S.

A previous study demonstrated that excessive TV viewing during childhood is associated with a higher risk of criminal behavior later in life, while a different report revealed that children’s muscular fitness decreases the more hours they spend in front of the television.

The experts in the new study set out to examine how kids between the ages of 5 and 7 were psychologically and socially affected by their time spent watching TV and playing electronic games.

A representative sample of more than 11,000 kids were involved in the investigation, they were registered in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been observing the long-term well-being and development of children born in the UK between 2000 and 2002.

The children’s mothers were given a validated Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) questionnaire when the kids were 5 years old, and then again when they were 7. The survey’s aim was to evaluate how well-adjusted the children were.

The SDQ consisted of five scales, which measured:

  • conduct problems
  • poor attention span/hyperactivity
  • hard time making friends
  • emotional symptoms
  • empathy and concern for others – pro-social behaviors

The mothers were also inquired about the amount of time their kids spent in front of the TV or playing computer games when they were 5 years old.

Results showed that nearly two thirds of the kids watched TV for between one and 3 hours each day when they were five. Fifteen percent watched television for over 3 hours each day, and less than 2% did not watch TV at all.

At that age, kids spend significantly less time playing computer games, with just 3% playing for three or more hours each day.

After adjusting for factors likely to influence the results, such as parenting and family dynamics, the authors found that watching TV for 3 or more hours each day was significantly linked to a very a small increased chance of antisocial behavior (conduct problems) between the ages of five and seven.

However, prolonged TV viewing was not associated with other challenges, including emotional issues or attention problems.

Time spent playing electronic games had no comparable influence on the kids’ behavior. “Although this might reflect the fact that children spent less time playing games than they did watching TV,” the researchers explained.

The experts said:

“The links between heavy screen time and mental health may be indirect, rather than direct, such as increased sedentary behavior, sleeping difficulties, and impaired language development, and that the child’s own temperament may predict screen time habits.”

The authors concluded:

“[The study] suggests that a cautionary approach to the heavy use of screen entertainment in young children is justifiable in terms of potential effects on wellbeing, particularly conduct problems, in addition to effects on physical health and academic progress shown elsewhere.”

Written by Sarah Glynn