It turns out that letting a five-year-old watch more than three hours of television a day may not help him or her become a well-rounded person. Who would have thought?

However, researchers at the University of Glasgow in the UK say the risk that a child who watches that much TV will develop antisocial behaviors—including stealing and fighting by the age of seven—is very small.

Their study, published this week in the Archives of Disease in Childhood,explored the impact of TV watching and video game playing on 11,000 children ages five to seven. After accounting for other factors—including family makeup and parental dynamics—researchers found that the 15 percent of children who watched more than three hours of television a day had "a very small increased risk” of displaying antisocial behavior at age seven.

A point the researchers stressed is that there may be only an indirect link between screen time and mental health risks. The increased risk of antisocial behavior could be influenced by the amount of time a child is sedentary or by the child having trouble falling asleep after watching TV. Also, the researchers did not record what type of programming the children watched.

Television viewing, the researchers stated, had no effect on a child’s emotional health or attention span. They also found that video game playing had no effect on antisocial behavior or any other health risks. 

While no direct link could be established, the study authors cautioned against heavy doses of television for young children because of potential physical and academic harm. They said that further research is needed to determine just what effect TV viewing has on adolescent mental health.

Previous Studies on Television and Antisocial Behavior

Another study released earlier this month explored the connection between excessive TV watching and antisocial behavior.

The study, published in February in Pediatrics, incorporated data from 1,037 New Zealanders who were followed from birth to age 26. It compared their TV watching habits as children with any criminal activity, aggressive personality traits, or mental health diagnoses in adulthood, especially antisocial personality disorder. The researchers took into account the effects of parental behavior, socioeconomic status, and other factors. 

“Young adults who had spent more time watching television during childhood and adolescence were significantly more likely to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, and more aggressive personality traits compared with those who viewed less television,” the researchers concluded.

The official recommendation from that study is that children watch no more than one to two hours of TV per day. 

Another study published in Pediatrics found that because preschool-aged children can imitate both the aggressive and pro-social behaviors they see on TV and in movies, monitoring what a child watches can impact his or her behavior.

So, parents can take advantage of the monkey-see-monkey-do nature of young children by having them watch programs with pro-social messages, such as Sesame Street.

Furthermore, a study from 1999 recommended reducing TV and video game time as a way to prevent childhood obesity, after studying the viewing and eating habits of third- and fourth-graders. Researchers found that not eating meals in front of the television contributed significantly to improving a child’s health.

The Rational Response to TV

With so many other factors to consider, it’s hard to definitively say that TV viewing triggers any specific behaviors.

However, if you’re using the television as a babysitter, there’s a good chance your child won’t be as well adjusted as others who are outside playing with the neighborhood kids.

Then again, if your child is keeping up in school and playing well with others, watching TV or playing video games in moderation won’t hurt. 

Parents simply need to use common sense. 

If all else fails, try this experiment proposed by comedian and father of two Louis C.K. in his special “Hilarious”

“If your kids watch TV, here's what you should do...The next time your kid is watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there and just turn it off without any warning,” he said. “Watch what happens. They go: [screaming]. Do you think that's a good sign? Do you think that's a sign that it's healthy for them?”

Probably not.

More on