Kids' TV Is Filled with Social Bullying

Cruel teasing, insults, name-calling. This type of social bullying is alarmingly common on kids’ TV shows, based on a recent study in the Journal of Communication. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so it’s a particularly good time to take a closer look at what your kids are seeing on TV.

In the study, researchers analyzed three episodes each of the top 50 TV programs for children ages 2 through 11. They were looking for social aggression—non-physical bullying that’s limited to words or body language. And they found it, in spades. More than 90 percent of the programs depicted social aggression—on average, 14 incidents per hour.

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Beyond Sticks and Stones

Physical violence in the media has received lots of attention. But this was one of the first studies to look at kids’ exposure to social aggression on TV.

It turned out that social bullying was not only common, but also especially distressing in the way it was portrayed. In the storylines on kids’ TV, such behavior was rarely punished, and few characters who acted this way showed any remorse. Plus, social aggression was more likely than the physical kind to be presented in humorous scenes.

The bottom line: Because it’s depicted as consequence-free and even funny, social bullying may come across as a good thing to young viewers. For that reason, kids may be especially likely to learn and imitate the behavior, according to study lead author Nicole Martins, PhD, an assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University.

Monitoring the Mean Screen

It’s tempting to dismiss social bullying as no big deal, the way many TV storylines seem to do. Unfortunately, in the off-screen world, such behavior may be far from harmless and laughable.

Young victims of teasing, taunts, malicious gossip, and other forms of social bullying may be rejected by their classmates, leading to loneliness and poor self-esteem. Plus, research suggests that social bullying may contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and, in the most tragic cases, suicide.

As a parent, you can help discourage social bullying by keeping an eye on what your kids are watching on TV. Don’t assume a program is kid-friendly just because it doesn’t contain physical violence. In a statement about the study, Martins noted, “Parents should be more aware of portrayals that may not be explicitly violent in a physical sense but are nonetheless antisocial in nature.”

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