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Early home environment and television watching influence bullying behavior


Four-year-old children who receive emotional support and cognitive stimulation from their parents are significantly less likely to become bullies in grade school, but the more television four-year-olds watch the more likely they are to bully later, according to an article in the April issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Bullying among school children is considered a serious public health problem, affecting an estimated 30 percent of school-age children in the U.S., according to background information in the article. Previous research has suggested three possible predictors of future bullying behavior: that parental emotional support helps young children develop empathy, self-regulation and prosocial skills and might be protective; that bullying might arise out of early cognitive deficits that lead to decreased competence with peers; and that television violence may produce aggressive behavior.

Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues compared assessments of 1,266 four-year-olds enrolled in a national longitudinal study for the three potential predictors, parental emotional support, cognitive stimulation and amount of television watching at four years of age, with later bullying, reported at ages six through 11. Statistical methods were used to determine whether each predictor constituted an independent risk factor for subsequent bullying.

Cognitive stimulation assessment was based on information on outings, reading, playing and parental role in teaching a child. Emotional support assessment included questions on whether the child ate meals with both parents, parents talked to the child while working and spanking. The average number of hours of television watching was based on parent reports. Bullying was determined by the characterization of the child as a bully by his mother.

Approximately thirteen percent of children were reported as bullies by their mothers, the researchers report. Both early emotional support and cognitive stimulation had substantial protective effects. "The magnitude of the risk associated with television…is clinically significant," the authors write. "… a one-standard deviation increase [3.9 hours] in the number hours of television watched at age four years is associated with an approximate 25 percent increase in the probability of being described as a bully by the child’s mother at ages six through 11 years."

"Our results have some important implications," the authors conclude. "First, we have provided some empirical support to theories that suggest that bullying might arise out of cognitive deficits as well as emotional ones. Second, we have added bullying to the list of potential negative consequences of excessive television viewing along with obesity, inattention, and other types of aggression. Third, our findings suggest some steps that can be taken with children to potentially help prevent bullying. Maximizing cognitive stimulation and limiting television watching in the early years of development might reduce children’s subsequent risk of becoming bullies."

Pam Sowers | EurekAlert!
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