Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth
As I greeted my fourth grader off the bus the other day, we began our regular after-school chat between mouthfuls of his afternoon snack.
“What happened at school today?” I ask. “Madison got in trouble with the teacher for being mean to Emily,” he says.
“Oh. What was Madison doing?”
“Well, we were playing this game at recess, but Madison kept changing the rules so that Emily would always lose, or would not know how to play. Emily started to cry and then the teachers came and sent Madison inside.”
It sounds like my son has a mean girl in his class. These types of “mean girl” behaviors—social exclusion, and name calling---are known as relational aggression. I’ve spent the last decade researching this type of behavior among young people and despite the reputation for relational aggression being something that “girls do,” research shows that boys can be just as mean with their friends as girls.
So where do children learn these kinds of relationally aggressive behaviors?
As one might expect, children learn from behaviors modeled to them (e.g. at home or at school). But this also includes behaviors modeled via media content. Indeed, my research demonstrates that exposure to televised relational aggression is related to children’s use of relational aggression at school.
Unfortunately, relational aggression is quite prevalent in children’s television programs. A study I conducted with Dr. Barbara Wilson, found that 92% of 150 shows that are popular among elementary school children included some form of relational aggression.
Moreover, the ways in which the relational aggression was portrayed increased the chances that children would imitate it. For example, relational aggression was often enacted by attractive perpetrators, who were rarely punished for the actions, and a majority of the relationally aggressive interactions were meant to be funny, which further minimized any potential consequences to the victims.
This is particularly problematic because follow-up studies have shown that relationally aggressive characters tend to be well-liked by children viewers because they are attractive and funny. When children like characters who do antisocial things, they are more likely to excuse the aggression, and as a result, more likely to report they would imitate the behaviors in the future.
Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to how we feature relationally aggressive conflicts in children’s media representations.
Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:
When using a relationally aggressive plot point, show the consequences to the victim. Perhaps the victim can verbalize hurt feelings, or the consequences of a false rumor can be shown.
The perpetrator of the relational aggression should be punished in some way. An added bonus: there is research to show that viewers like seeing a disliked perpetrator getting what they deserve.
Avoid rewarding relationally aggressive behavior. For example, a verbal ‘put-down’ should not be used to get a laugh. These kinds of actions are easily imitated by young children, but they are not yet able to understand how and when such a joke should be used.
If storytellers could take some of these steps to avoid portraying relational aggression in an appealing light, it could go a long way in shaping how the millions of impressionable young viewers perceive relational aggression and their subsequent behavior.
Nicole Martins, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Media at Indiana University
Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers