October 10, 2012

Too Much Mean TV

All the gossip, rejection, teasing and excluding that goes on on shows sets the wrong tone.

Bullying is an increasing problem among school-aged children. From gossip to name calling, from social exclusion, to cyber-bullying, episodes of social violence take a huge toll on the emotional and physical health of children and teens. While we have all become more aware of the dangers of physical bullying, there is a subtler, more common type of social bullying that goes on in schools in which children are made fun of, ganged up on, excluded. This social aggression is also, it turns out, very much a part of children's television shows.

Social Aggression is Everywhere

Bullying has been with us since before Facebook and the Internet, before television and video games. But such outlets can unintentionally promote the social ostracism and violence that characterize bullying. That is why two communications professors recently looked at children’s TV programs to see how often social aggression was portrayed, who the perpetrators and victims were, and what the repercussions were for each. They wanted to see if our young children are learning early lessons in social misbehavior from their favorite TV shows. Their findings were revealing, and concerning.

'Parents should not assume that a program is okay 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 antisocial in nature.'

The investigators defined social aggression as acts that damage the victim’s self-esteem or social standing. This includes behaviors such as spreading rumors and gossiping, ignoring and excluding peers from activities. Social aggression can take many forms and can be verbal or nonverbal and direct or indirect. Children can be bullied outright -- physically pushed, hit, called names. Or, they can be the subject of gossip and left out of gatherings and activities.

It's Not Only About Physical Violence

While studies have shown that physical violence in the media often contributes to increased aggression among the viewers, the effect of social violence has not been as well studied. The study, "Mean on the Screen," was designed to investigate the portrayal of social violence on children’s television. Nicole Martins of Indiana University and Barbara Wilson of the University of Illinois, looked at 50 TV shows that were popular with children ages 2-11 years and asked: How often social aggression was portrayed on TV, what kinds of characters engage in it, and what it looks like.

The results are likely to surprise many parents, educators, and care providers. Socially aggressive role models occur very, very frequently in popular children’s TV shows. They found that 92% of shows featured some social aggression and that aggressive interactions occurred at a rate of 14.4 incidents per hour, that is, one incident of social aggression every four minutes. Most, 78%, of the incidents were verbal such as insulting or name-calling, with only about 20% being non- verbal such as making faces or laughing at someone.

Socially aggressive role models occur very, very frequently in popular children’s TV shows. They found that 92% of shows featured some social aggression and that aggressive interactions occurred at a rate of 14.4 incidents per hour, that is, one incident of social aggression every four minutes.

The majority of events (86 percent) were aimed directly at a target rather than behind his or her back. -- such as making a mean face. Often the perpetrators were female, making it easier for young girls to model their behavior. One quarter of the time social aggression was done by physically attractive perpetrators, making it also more likely that children would see the acts as acceptable.

Too Few Consequences and No Empathy for Victims

Another reason why social aggression on the screen can be so damaging is that rarely are there serious consequences for bad behavior. The investigators looked at what followed socially aggressive acts. Were the children who were mean or socially aggressive punished? How were victims' feelings portrayed? Did they confront the perpetrators?

In the majority of scenarios, the aggressive acts were neither rewarded nor punished. In 71% of the scenes, victims did not appear to experience any emotional or physical pain from the encounter. This means that the children observing the TV shows often did not gain a sense that being mean is punished or even frowned upon. Nor were children asked to understand its effects on victims.

At times, there was actually humor involved in the scenes in which children were mocked or excluded or mistreated. In fact, humor was present in one quarter of scenes containing social aggression, “•Thus it appears that the serious nature of social aggression is often trivialized and heightens the probability that children will learn such behavior from viewing.”

The researchers conclude that, “socially aggressive role models are prevalent•95% of socially aggressive scenes in programs popular with children are portrayed in such a way that fosters children’s imitation of social aggression. Only a small percentage of socially aggressive scenes in children’s favorite shows serve to diminish the learning of such behaviors.”

The study calls attention to the fact that parents and educators need to become aware of the effect that seemingly minor social aggression on TV can have on children. Parents need to begin to look at whether the shows their children watch are subtly promoting heartlessness toward less popular peers. The authors caution that the lack of physical violence in programming does not guarantee that antisocial content is not present.

The study appears in the Journal of Communication.

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