Children’s Television: A Primer on Bullying?


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Social Aggression on TV: Where’s the Consequence?

Most often, the perpetrator of social aggression  was not punished for their action.  The authors note, “In terms of reinforcements, social aggression was neither rewarded nor punished in the majority of scenes (78%).” 

Referring to the famous research on how children learn by modeling behavior conducted in the 1960s by Alfred Bandura, the authors note the lack of any social disapproval of an aggressive act, combined with attractive perpetrators, gender-typed behavior, in a humorous context, leads the researchers to conclude “children may be at risk for learning socially aggressive behaviors; behaviors that are more prevalent and just as concentrated as physical aggression in children’s favorite shows.” 

Or, in other words, children’s television programming is teaching children how to bully.

Physical aggression is common in chidlren's programs.  Image by Lance Shields.
Physical aggression is common in chidlren’s programs. Image by Lance Shields.

Suggestions for Parents

First, the authors write in the review of their research, “[p]arents should be more aware of portrayals that may not be explicitly violent in a physical sense but are nonetheless antisocial in nature.”  Mean may not include hitting or shoving – it may primarily mean hurtful words and gestures.

 In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Martins stated “[E]ven though we have  put more emphasis on combating bullying in school, this is not reflected  generally in the shows that children watch. Thus, they are not reminded that the name calling, cruel insults and put downs are associated with very real  consequences suffered by the victims.” 

She does not favor a television show rating system, however, noting that “our current rating system is not very effective and most parents do not use it  to filter content for their children. Thus, adding an additional rating , I  think, won’t be very helpful.” Rather than ratings, Dr. Martins favors education of parents “[i]nstead, helping parents understand that these  behaviors are prevalent on the shows their kids watch may be more useful.”

 In terms of educators and others interested in combating bullying, she suggested in the interview, “[perhaps including a media literacy curriculum in conjunction with the  anti-bullying campaigns at school may be more effective.”  

Preventing Bullying Messages to Kids

Bullying behavior is common in kids television, and the characters don’t suffer consequences for their actions. This scenario could lead to your child learning the wrong lessons about life. Next time your child is watching television, watch with her, and see if television is teaching lessons you would prefer she not learn.


Martins, N. and Wilson, B. Mean on the Screen: Social Aggression in Programs Popular With Children. (2012). Journal of Communication. Accessed September 27, 2012.

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