“I know murder is a bad thing to do to society, but it was something I needed to experience.”

So said a 17-year-old boy in police custody in May 2000. The boy had stabbed to death a 64-year-old woman in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture. He has since been sent to a medical reformatory, but the case, like many around the world in recent years, stirred up debate over juvenile crime and its causes. Something had to be blamed, whether it was the collapse of the nuclear family or kids’ immersion in ultra- violent video games.

No explanation of something as complex as human behavior will be straightforward, but a paper published today in Science demonstrates a convincing link between watching television in childhood and violent crime in later life.

Jeffrey Johnson and colleagues from Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute tracked the lives of 707 boys and girls over 17 years. The researchers found that watching more than one hour of TV a day makes adolescents in their late teens and early 20s more prone to violence against other people.

The study is especially interesting because the scientists controlled for the effects of family income, neighborhood violence, parental education, previous aggressive behavior, childhood neglect and psychiatric disorders. Even when all these complicating factors had been taken into account, there remained a statistically significant association between the time spent watching TV and the likelihood of subsequent violent acts. You can almost hear TV programmers cursing under their breaths.

In a commentary on the paper in Science, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, of the department of psychology at Iowa State University, said that press reports on the link between media presentations of violence and violence in society are played down. “This inaccurate reporting in the popular press may account for continuing controversy long after the debate should have been over,” write the authors, “much as the cigarette smoking/cancer controversy persisted long after the scientific community knew that smoking causes cancer.”

So has the controversy been cleared up? “Our findings suggest that, at least during early adolescence, responsible parents should avoid permitting their children to watch more than one hour of television a day,” said Johnson. “That’s where the vast majority of the increase in risk occurs.”

The youths and their families were interviewed four times over the course of 17 years and assigned to one of three categories: those who watched less than one hour of TV a day; those who watched between one and three hours a day; and those who watched more than three hours a day. The subjects, from northern New York State, were overwhelmingly white (91 percent) and predominantly Catholic (54 percent).

The surveys didn’t record which programs the subjects actually watched, but that hardly matters. Three to five violent acts occur in an average hour of prime-time TV in the United States, and a grisly 20-25 violent acts occur in an average hour of children’s TV, said Johnson. (As black radical and alleged cop-killer H. Rap Brown said in 1967, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”)

The researchers gathered information on violent acts via interviews and from state and federal arrest records, then grouped the violence according to whether it occurred when the subjects were around age 16, 22 or 30. Acts included assault or physical fights that resulted in injury, robbery or threats to injure someone. Of the adolescents who watched less than one hour, 5.7 percent went on to commit aggressive acts in later life; 22.5 percent who watched between one and three hours commited aggressive acts, as did 28.8 percent of adolescents who watched more than three hours a day.

The study, say Anderson and Bushman, is the first “to link television exposure during adolescence and young adulthood to subsequent aggression, contradicting the common assumption that media violence affects only children.”

The “chicken and egg” problem was also addressed. In other words, does watching TV lead to aggression, or do people prone to aggression watch more TV? The researchers found that individuals with a history of aggressive behavior did not, in general, watch more TV than youths without such a history. Heavy TV viewing really does seem to lead to aggressive behavior.

The conclusion is similar to that reported in 1999 by Japan’s Management and Coordination Agency study on the effects of TV and video-game violence. The survey, of 3,242 schoolchildren in five prefectures, found that children with the highest exposure to violent TV also had the highest level of actual violent behavior.

Perhaps the current arguments about exposure to violence on TV and video games and subsequent actual violence will become noncontroversial, just as the link between cigarettes and cancer is noncontroversial. But will that mean that watching violent shows will become socially unacceptable, even illegal, like smoking in public places in California?

“I doubt it,” said Anderson in an e-mail interview. “The television industry and allied motion picture and video game industries are very wealthy and powerful. They have a lot of ways to influence public opinion, and I can’t imagine them changing their current practices of denying the research evidence, paying certain unrepresentative ‘scholars’ to denigrate the research and conducting extensive lobbying efforts.”

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