A new research study led by an Indiana University professor found that social bullying is just as prevalent in children’s television as depictions of physical aggression.
The study, “Mean on the Screen: Social Aggression in Programs Popular With Children,” which appears in the Journal of Communication, found that 92 percent of the top 50 programs for children between ages 2 and 11 showed characters involved in social aggression.
On average, there were 14 incidents of social aggression per hour, or once every four minutes.
While physical aggression in television for children has been extensively documented, this is believed to be among the first studies to analyze children’s exposure to behaviors such as cruel gossiping and manipulation of friendship.
“Social aggression was more likely to be enacted by an attractive perpetrator, to be featured in a humorous context and neither rewarded or punished,” wrote Nicole Martins, assistant professor of telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences. “In these ways, social aggression on television poses more of a risk for imitation and learning than do portrayals of physical aggression.”
Martins, the lead researcher on the study, and Barbara Wilson, professor of communication at the University of Illinois, conducted a content analysis of the 50 most popular children’s shows according to Nielsen Media Research from December 2006 to March 2007. In all, 150 television shows were viewed and analyzed.
Careful attention was given to what was portrayed in the cases of social aggression, whether the behavior was rewarded or punished, justified or committed by an attractive perpetrator.
The findings suggest that some of the ways in which social aggression is contextualized make these depictions particularly problematic for young viewers.
“These findings should help parents and educators recognize that there are socially aggressive behaviors on programs children watch,” Martins said. “Parents should not assume that a program is OK for their child to watch simply because it does not contain physical violence.
“Parents should be more aware of portrayals that may not be explicitly violent in a physical sense but are nonetheless anti-social in nature,” Martins added.
The vast majority of socially aggressive incidents — 78 percent — were verbal: words to hurt the self-esteem or social standing of another character on the program. The most common types of social aggression were insults (52 percent) or name-calling (25 percent). Other common types of negative behavior shown were teasing (10 percent) and sarcasm (9 percent).
Only about 20 percent of all socially aggressive incidents were non-verbal in nature and typically employed a mean face (36 percent) or laughter meant to lower the self-esteem of another character (31 percent). Rolling eyes, finger pointing and simply ignoring the other person also were common.
“We also coded whether social aggression was directly perpetrated at the target — such as making a mean face — or indirectly perpetrated behind the target’s back — such as spreading a rumor,” the authors wrote. “The vast majority of socially aggressive incidents (86 percent) were enacted directly at the target. Rarely were socially aggressive incidents perpetrated behind the target’s back.”
While previous research has demonstrated that gossip is one of the most common forms of social aggression in real life, it was rarely seen in children’s television shows analyzed for the study. Martins and Wilson concluded that gossip, due to its indirect nature, may have been seen by program producers as being too subtle for advancing a story’s plot.