The Devastating Link Between too Much TV Time and Bullying

Esther Crain

His television-watching habit now may put him at risk when he reaches middle school. (Photo: iStock)

It’s no secret that too much television watching can pose dangers to small kids. Children who watch television have a higher likelihood of attention-span problems, academic difficulties, obesity, and sleep issues, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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Now, you can add another negative to this list: being bullied. A new study suggests that the number of hours a toddler racks up in front of the tube correlates to the likelihood that she’ll be bullied in the sixth grade. For roughly every extra hour of TV time a child is exposed to at 29 months old, the odds of being the target of a classmate bully in 10 years surge by 11 percent.

The 10-year study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, took a look at data from 1,997 boys and girls. The kids’ parents recorded their TV viewing habits to researchers, and the children themselves reported to the research team whether they were victims of bullying.

The amount of TV time as a toddler and the odds of being a bully’s victim were positively linked, researchers reported. Of course, being bullied in middle school can be a traumatic experience on its own. But it has wider repercussions as well: victims are more prone to depression, underachievement, and low self-esteem, study researchers wrote.

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Why would TV exposure lead to becoming a bully’s target? It may be the way passive screen time prevents toddlers from picking up the social skills learned through one-on-one contact with people in real life, study authors theorize. Without those skills, they may stand out among their more socially-savvy peers and end up in a bully’s sights.

“It is plausible that early lifestyle habits characterized by less effortful interactive experiences, such as early televiewing, can ultimately result in social skill deficits,” said lead study author Linda Pagani, a researcher at the University of Montreal, in a news release. “More time spent watching television leaves less time for family interaction, which remains the primary vehicle for socialization.”

The study results and possible explanation for them make sense to parenting experts. “The toddler years are a time of critical brain development,” Amy Morin, New York City psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Toddlers learn a lot about themselves and the world in general through their daily interactions. It’s not surprising that these toddlers may struggle with social skills as older children.”

No wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 be exposed to no screen time at all, and that parents of older children impose 1-2 hour daily limits on TV watching as well. 

Instead of resorting to the tube as a babysitter or blowing off screen exposure as no big deal, make more of an effort to engage young kids in the real, 3-dimensional world. “Toddlers need social interaction throughout the day,” says Morin. “Talking and playing with a caregiver gives them feedback and stimulation that is critical to their development. Playing near other children gives toddlers the opportunity to observe and interact as well.”

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