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Social Bullying Common in TV Shows Kids Watch

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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