Children between the ages of 2 and 11 are viewing social aggression on television at rates far greater than what many parents may realize, new research indicates.
In a study published Thursday in the Journal of Communication, researchers aimed to understand the role media plays in children's psychosocial development. They found that among the 50 most popular television shows for 2 to 11 year olds as ranked by Nielsen Media Research, 92 percent of the programs contained some social aggression, both verbal and non-verbal forms.
"Parents need to be more aware that just because shows do not contain physical aggression, it doesn't mean that there is not anti-social behavior present," said Nicole Martins, assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University and lead author of the study.
"I'm not saying that parents can't use the television at all," Martins added, "but it could be a teaching opportunity to emphasize that some of those mean remarks may cause lasting emotional scars."
In total, the research team watched 150 television episodes, three of each show, making note of socially aggressive incidents aimed at damaging social status, self-esteem or both. Specific behaviors of friendship manipulation, gossiping and mean facial expressions were examined. They found that such incidents occurred at the rate of 14 times per hour, or one every four minutes.
Furthermore, Martins and her team realized that social aggression was more often committed by an attractive person, presented in a humorous context, and neither punished nor rewarded. While insults and name calling were the two most common verbal incidents witnessed, giggling and looks of disgust were the two most prevalent non-verbal behaviors.
"Of course, we cannot make firm claims about what types of effects exposure to these portrayals may have on young viewers," the study authors wrote. That would require further study.
Rahil Briggs, assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a child development specialist, recommended that young children view television shows with their parents so that they can interpret the acceptability of what is being seen rather than being passive recipients.
"Being able to talk about what you see is a key piece," Briggs said. "In society, we have become more and more aware of the importance of bullying, and it's going to become increasingly necessary to understand the early building blocks of social aggression that may lead to this."
Martins and her co-researcher Barbara Wilson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identified only two other previous studies that have explored social aggression in children's programming. Collectively, this former work included a smaller number of shows studied, review of British shows that may not be applicable to U.S. audiences, and programming that focused on pre-teens and teens, rather than small children.
What sets this analysis apart is the breadth and number of shows included in the study, its attempt to understand the context in which social aggression is portrayed, and its emphasis on young children.
"Television is quite persuasive," Briggs said. "I think it's helpful [to know], especially for parents who have long been aware of and concerned of implications of physical aggression on television, that social aggression is also quite prevalent."
Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of the child and adolescent psychiatry residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital, emphasized the urgent need for additional research in the area.
"We need more research on the impact of media on kids on all ages -- violent, sexual, and socially aggressive media," Beresin said. "What are the consequences? Which kids are vulnerable?"
Beresin added, "Most kids are not going to become violent or socially inappropriate or aggressive based on media, but some percent will. But we don't know what percent will. And we don't know how young this starts."
Martins and her team made the case that parents need to be aware that perpetrators of social aggression may be potent role models for their children and that it may encourage unwanted behaviors in childhood.
Martins, however, hoped her research would increase awareness of the effects of social aggression not just for parents but also among television producers.
"Maybe this will encourage the industry to be more responsible in their portrayals," she said. "Perhaps they can make these scenes a lot less funny or associate pain or consequences with these remarks, instead of the way it is portrayed now -- because it may encourage children to be cruel to one another."