Studies about the incidence and effects of physical violence in children’s television programming are everywhere. But what about mental or emotional aggression? It turns out that “social bullying” – teasing, taunting, name calling, gossip, and social scheming – goes on in most of the TV programs that children watch, but has been largely ignored in research.
Children’s TV scenes involving social bullying are often played for laughs. And when the social bullies are attractive characters, plot lines rarely see them punished for their bad behavior. Nicole Martins, assistant professor in the communications department at Indiana University and co-author of a recent study of social aggression in children’s television, says that’s dangerous: Kids identify with attractive characters on their favorite shows and could follow in their bullying footsteps.
In their study, Martins and co-author Barbara J. Wilson found social aggression in 92 percent of shows that Nielsen Media Research listed as the 50 most popular with kids. They counted about 14 incidents per hour, on average, for a range of programs, from “The Amanda Show” to “Drake & Josh,” “Scooby Doo” and “The Simpsons.” Some, such as “Survivor” and “American Idol,” aren’t targeted directly at children but are still popular with kids.
“One of the worst offenders of socially aggressive behaviors was ‘American Idol,’” Martins says. “Simon [Cowell] was particularly nasty to the contestants who auditioned for the show, and Paula [Abdul] frequently called Simon names.”
Extensive research has demonstrated that children who watch physical violence on television become more violent themselves, and Martins says it’s possible kids could learn socially aggressive behavior the same way – especially if the social bullies always seem to get a laugh or come out ahead.
“In fact, my coauthor and I did a second study where we examined whether exposure to socially aggressive programs was related to children’s social aggression in a sample of 500 elementary school children,” Martin says. It turned out that the programs affected girls much more than boys.
She warns parents that they can’t assume a TV program is fine for their child to watch just because it contains no physical violence. “Parents should be aware that their children are watching programs that may not be violent in a physical sense, but are nonetheless antisocial in nature,” Martin says.
Her study was published a September issue of the Journal of Communication.