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Social bullying, often by an attractive perpetrator, is widespread on children’s TV, study finds

The acts of TV bullying are most likely to be perpetuated by an attractive real-life person or fictional character and without any negative consequences to the bully.

Children's television shows, including the popular iCarly, are replete with scenes of social bullying.

Efforts to combat bullying in schools — such as those recommended in August by Gov. Mark Dayton’s task force on “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools” [PDF] — are struggling against a very strong headwind: children’s television.

For, even young children — those aged 2 to 11 — watch an alarming number of TV depictions of social bullying every day, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Communication.

Furthermore, those acts of TV bullying are most likely to be perpetuated by an attractive real-life person or fictional character and without any negative consequences to the bully.

“[S]ocial aggression on television poses more of a risk for imitation and learning than do portrayals of physical aggression,” conclude the studies authors, Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, and Barbara Wilson, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Every four minutes

For the study, Martins and Wilson looked at 150 episodes (three episodes each) of 50 of the most popular shows among children under the age of 12 as determined by Nielsen Media Research. They included shows aimed specifically at children, such as “Rugrats” and “iCarly,” and those aimed at adults but watched frequently by kids, such as “American Idol,” “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “Fear Factor.”

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The researchers found that 92 percent of the programs included incidents of social aggression, which they defined as an action aimed at damaging self-esteem or social standing through “gossiping, social exclusion, giving dirty looks, and friendship manipulation.”

In fact, an average of 14 different incidents of social aggression occurred per hour in these shows — or about one every four minutes.

Most (78 percent) of the incidents were verbal, primarily insults (52 percent) and name-calling (25 percent). The nonverbal incidents usually involved individuals making a mean facial expression (36 percent) or laughing (31 percent) at someone else.

Unlike in real life, where social aggression tends to be conducted behind people’s backs, most incidents of social aggression on TV (86 percent) were enacted directly at the person targeted, the study found.

The context of these TV incidents of social aggression was also troubling, say the authors. “Compared to the portrayals of physical aggression,” Martins and Wilson write, “social aggression was more likely to be enacted by an attractive perpetrator, to be featured in a humorous context, and neither rewarded or punished.”

Those factors increase the likelihood that the perpetuators of social aggression will serve as role models for young viewers, the authors add.

Serious consequences

This new study does not prove that the social aggression depicted on TV turns children into bullies, but it does raise some troubling questions.

“Because social aggression does not result in physical injury, it may be tempting to conclude that it is less problematic than overt behavioral aggression,” write Martins and Wilson. “Yet the consequences of social aggression can be quite serious. Victims of social aggression typically are rejected by their peers and consequently experience sociopsychological adjustment problems. Victims also report poor self–concept and self-esteem. In extreme cases, social aggression has even been implicated in suicide.”

Social aggression in the real-life world of teenagers is widespread. In a 2002 survey of 1,001 teens, report Martins and Wilson, 66 percent said they were the target of cruel gossip or teasing at least once a month. The teens also said that ending such bullying was the No. 1 change they’d like to see in their school to stop violence.

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School-based anti-bullying programs will help, but this study suggests that parents also need to pay attention to what their children are watching on TV (and in the movies).

“Parents should not assume that a program is OK for their child to watch simply because it does not contain physical violence,” advise Martins and Wilson. “Parents should be more aware of portrayals that may not be explicitly violent in a physical sense but are nonetheless antisocial in nature. Such content may be encouraging children to engage in behavior that is destructive and cruel.”