What Is Sponge Bob Teaching Kids?

Social bullying in kids shows occurs frequently in humorous situations that send the wrong message

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Cliques, mean gossiping, name-calling… where do little kids learn these cruel forms of social bullying? Well, possibly children's shows on TV.

A recent study found that nearly all of the top rated children's shows for preschool and elementary children included situations with social aggression.

"Monitor your children's media."

The study was led by Nicole Martins, PhD, in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, and Barbara J. Wilson, PhD, in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The researchers examined the 50 most popular TV shows among children aged 2 to 11 according to Nielsen Media Research.

Of the 150 episodes they watched and analyzed, the researchers found that 92 percent of them included at least some "social aggression."

Social aggression is a term for non-physical bullying, such as name-calling, insults, cruel gossip, excluding others, dirty looks, manipulating relationships or other forms of "emotional violence."

It can be direct or indirect, verbal or nonverbal, but it always targets a person's self-esteem or social standing instead of physically assaulting them. Studies have also shown it's more common among females.

In fact, they found that approximately 14 situations of social bullying occurred each hour in these programs — which translates to one every four minutes.

Usually, the social bullying was done by one of the more attractive characters in the show, and it was often done to be funny.

The bullying actions were often not rewarded or punished by other characters or situations in the show.

Because the scenes involving social bullying tend to be humorous and because the attractive perpetrators are not usually punished, the authors suggest that they model inappropriate behavior for young viewers.

"In these ways, social aggression on television poses more of a risk for imitation and learning than do portrayals of physical aggression," the authors wrote.

"Parents should not assume that a program is okay for their child to watch simply because it does not contain physical violence," the authors wrote.

"Parents should be more aware of portrayals that may not be explicitly violent in a physical sense but are nonetheless antisocial in nature," they continued. "Such content may be encouraging children to engage in behavior that is destructive and cruel."

The authors said this study cannot predict how viewing this social bullying on TV affects children, so more research would be necessary to see if children's behavior reflects what they have seen in the media.

"We cannot make firm claims about what types of effects exposure to these portrayals may have on young viewers," the authors wrote. "The next step is to ascertain whether viewing these types of acts is associated with an increase in aggression that is more subtle and more relational."

The study was published September 27 in the Journal of Communication. The research was funded by a grant from the Fred Rogers Scholarship Memorial Fund.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 28, 2012
Last Updated:
October 2, 2012