Sept. 27, 2012 -- Social bullying is common on TV, even in shows made for kids, a new study shows.
Insults, taunting, and other forms of nonphysical aggression were found to be especially pervasive in cartoons and situation comedies, but they also showed up in some surprising places, like American Idol.
Physical violence on TV has long been a favorite topic of researchers, but the study is among the first to explore social aggression in television viewed most often by children.
On average, there were about 14 incidents an hour of social aggression in the 50 most watched television shows among 2- to 11-year-olds, and about nine out of 10 shows contained the bad behavior.
“Many shows that are really popular with young kids are not made for young kids,” says researcher Nicole Martins, PhD.
She adds that even though the bad behavior exhibited in these shows usually has consequences, kids younger than age 8 often miss the moral message.
Social Bullying Common in Comedies, Cartoons
The findings are likely no surprise to parents familiar with hit shows on Disney or Nickelodeon, especially those aimed at tweens but widely watched by younger children.
A typical plot line for shows like Nickelodeon’s mega-hit iCarly and Disney’s Hannah Montana involves rude, sarcastic, or otherwise bad behavior -- often delivered by the sidekick or best friend.
By the end of the show, these "mean girls" generally get their comeuppance, but younger kids may not connect this with the earlier actions, Martins says.
Even shows made for very young children, like the cartoon Rugrats, often have characters like the uber-bully Angelica, who exist solely to torment the other characters.
Martins says the fact that most of the social aggression kids see on TV occurs in comedies presents a special challenge.
“We know that when you couch aggression in humor it increases the chances of imitation because children are less likely to recognize that what is being said is hurtful,” Martins says.
Mean Behavior Depicted as Cool
Using Nielsen Media Research data, Martins identified the 50 most viewed TV shows by children under age 12, and she watched three episodes of each program.
Some of the shows, like Rugrats, were made for kids. Other shows, like American Idol, Family Guy, and Fear Factor, were not.
“Younger children often watch the programs their parents watch,” Martins says.
A total of 92% of the viewed episodes included incidents of social aggression, with verbal aggression accounting for about four out of five of these incidents.
Martins says parents need to be aware that the shows their children watch may be promoting the message that social aggression is OK or even cool.
The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Communication.
“I’m not saying that these shows shouldn’t exist, or even that children shouldn’t watch them,” she says. Martins says parents can use these TV moments of social aggression to talk about behaviors that can hurt people’s feelings.
Amy Jordan, PhD, who oversees research on the impact of media on children, agrees that social aggression on television can serve as teachable moment, especially for young children.
Jordan is with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and she chairs the Children, Adolescents and the Media division of the International Communication Association.
She says a single episode of a show like iCarly may promote positive messages to older children and negative ones to younger kids.
“Younger children are not likely to get subtle plot lines where inferences have to be made about how someone feels or what someone thinks,” she says.