The effect appeared in both sexes and regardless of how aggressive a person was as a child, University of Michigan researchers found.
The study linked violent TV viewing at ages 6 to 9 to such outcomes as spouse abuse and criminal convictions in a person's early 20s. The findings cut across all income and family groups.
"It didn't matter on income group, it didn't matter on ethnicity, it didn't matter on single parent versus dual parent families," said Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Association.
Nor was type of violence important.
"It was actually when they identified with the perpetrator of the violence, if the perpetrator was rewarded for that violence," he said.
Experts said the results are no surprise, but added that the study is important because it used a wide range of measures, included many participants and showed the effect in females as well as males.
The work is presented in the March issue of the journal Developmental Psychology by psychologists L. Rowell Huesmann and colleagues at the University's Institute for Social Research.
Huesmann said televised violence suggests to young children that aggression is appropriate in some situations, especially when it's used by charismatic heroes. It also erodes a natural aversion to violence, he said.
He recommended that parents restrict viewing of violent TV and movies by toddlers through pre-teens as much as possible.
The study involved 329 adults who were initially surveyed as children in the late 1970s. To check on adult aggressive behavior, researchers interviewed them and their spouses or friends, and checked crime records.
As children, the participants were rated for exposure to televised violence after they chose eight favorite shows from 80 popular programs for their age group and indicated how much they watched them. The programs were assessed by researchers for amount of physical violence. Such programs as "Starsky and Hutch," "The Six Million Dollar Man" and Roadrunner cartoons were deemed very violent.
As young adults, researchers found, men who had scored in the top 20 percent on childhood exposure were about twice as likely as other men to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their wives during an argument in the year preceding the interview. Women in the top 20 percent were about twice as likely as other women to have thrown something at their husbands.
"They report having punched, beaten or choked another adult at over four times the rate of women who were not exposed to media violence," said McIntyre, whose American Psychological Association calls this the first study to chart the viewing habits of boys and girls and then to track their lives 20 years later.
For one or both sexes, these "high TV-violence viewers" were also more likely than other study participants in the previous 12 months to have shoved somebody in anger; punched, beaten or choked an adult, or committed a crime or a moving traffic violation.
Besides childhood exposure to violent TV, the participants had been asked as children about two other traits: how much they identified with violent TV characters and how realistic they judged various violent TV shows to be.
Researchers found that high ratings on any of the three childhood measures predicted higher ratings on a measure of overall aggression in adulthood.
Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said not all studies find a relationship between TV viewing and violent behavior, and "I think the jury is still out about whether there is a link."
The American Psychological Association, however, has concluded that viewing violence on TV or other mass media does promote aggressive behavior, particularly in children.
"They act out as adults based on things they've learned and habits they had as children," McIntyre told CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato.
Other mental-health and medical groups have taken similar stands.
Joanne Cantor, professor emerita of communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called the new study "a very strong addition to what I consider a large amount of data that points in the same direction."
Craig A. Anderson, a violence researcher at Iowa State University, called the work "elegant in its design and execution."