Bullying, aggressive behaviour rampant in children's shows: study
Child watching television in an undated file photo. (CTV)
Published Saturday, September 29, 2012 6:45AM EDT
If you don’t know what shows your kids are watching after school, it appears there’s yet another reason to stay tuned to their viewing habits.
According to a new study by two U.S. researchers, children aged two to 12 are being exposed to an alarming amount of socially aggressive and bullying behaviour, in addition to the regular kind of physically violent behaviour parents are often warned about.
For the study, published in the Journal of Communication, Nicole Martins and co-author Barbara J. Wilson conducted a content analysis of the 50 most popular children’s television programs according to Nielsen Media Research for the 2005 to 2006 viewing season. After analyzing three random episodes of each show, they found that 92 per cent contained some form of social aggression -- behaviours such as gossiping and manipulation of friendships.
“The two things that might surprise parents are that the shows that are popular with kids are not necessarily the shows that are made for them… and in fact those shows were often the ones that had the highest level of social aggression,” said lead author Nicole Martins in an interview with CTVNews.ca.
She said in many reality shows, young viewers encounter socially aggressive behaviour from mean judges and highly competitive contestants.
“Most of the shows are predicated on the fact you have to betray someone to win the game,” Martins said.
Moreover the study found that attractive characters were less likely to be punished for socially aggressive behaviour and that in contrast to physical aggression, social aggression was more likely to be presented in a humorous context.
“We know that when aggressive behaviour or anti-social behaviour is made to be funny, it increases the likelihood of children imitating that because they’re not thinking about the consequences associated with imitating those real-life aggressive instances,” Martins said. “The humour numbs that. So that’s problematic.”
Martins said research shows that young children are easily influenced by television, as their sense of judgment is still forming and their distinctions between real life and fantasy are not fully formed.
“The child viewer is uniquely different from the adult viewer,” Martins said. “Under the age of 12 they don’t have the same kind of ability we do in terms of linking consequences to aggressive actions, understanding the moral of the story.
“And if you’re under the age of eight, that’s almost impossible for a young child to do.”
Disturbingly, Martins found in another study that girls are particularly susceptible when it comes to translating screen-modelled anti-social behaviours into the real world.
In fact, the inspiration for the study itself came after Martins saw the 2004 film, “Mean Girls,” starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams.
“As I was watching the movie, I thought what those girls were doing to one another was mean, but it wasn’t very overt, like portrayals of physical aggression are,” Martins said. “So I wondered if children could learn behaviours that were more subtle, but you could argue just as harmful or hurtful.”
Delving into the research, she found most of the literature focused exclusively on presentations of physical violence in children’s programming. So she set about investigating whether portrayals that are non-physical are also prevalent and if so, whether children can learn those behaviours too.
Having discovered that to be the case, Martins said she’s careful in terms of what she lets her own three-year-old watch.
“We really limit how much television he watches,” Martrins said. “He really watches only an hour or two a day and it’s only things on public broadcast television, like Sesame Street.”
That said, Martins added that the message isn’t to ban television completely, but to watch with kids, understand what they’re seeing and not let the TV act as the babysitter.
“I think parents’ jobs are already pretty difficult as it is. And I get that being a parent myself,” Martins said. “I think parents just need to be more aware of what their children are watching. Use the TV as a talking opportunity and a chance to educate kids about what could happen if these behaviours were really enacted in their everyday interactions.”
Martins said more research is still needed to determine whether levels of socially aggressive behaviour in kids programming have increased or remained steady over time. She said she’s also planning another study to tease out whether bullies tend to seek out shows featuring such behaviour or whether they act out based on what they’ve seen.