television

Media and Relational Aggression Among Youth

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

 

From Beer to Big Bird to Blue’s Clues: Research has Impact

Beer

What do selling beer and selling the alphabet have in common? They are forever tied together by the simple genius of Joan Ganz Cooney. Given the challenge to try to make something good out of television that could positively impact young lives, she first made one clear insight- kids loved to watch commercials. “Children all over the country were learning beer commercials so they were learning something, but could it teach something of potential use to children?” asked Cooney. Clearly, the songs, jingles, and production of the commercials kids were seeing were attracting a young audience, but Cooney didn’t stop there. She did what would lay the foundation for perhaps the most important kids show of all time. She did research.

In the summer of 1967 Cooney took a leave of absence from her job at WNDT and, funded by Carnegie Corporation, traveled the U.S. and Canada interviewing experts in child development, education, and television. At the end she had a document to work from:  “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education” and from that sprouted not only the show, “Sesame Street” but also the Children’s Television Workshop, a model for working and creating.

Research had impact.

Her research and work continues to impact children not only in America but worldwide. Doing research and really understanding her audience and their needs also ended up being great for business because the show really worked for kids. They were selling the alphabet and kids were buying in.

Fast forward a few decades to “Blue’s Clues,” another show that revolutionized television for kids. And like Sesame Street, the creators of Blue Clues also spent time before the creation of the show thinking about child development and how it plays into making content for kids. They did research.

Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson—the trio that developed Blue’s Clues—wanted the show to be entertaining as well as educational. Santomero held a master’s degree in child developmental psychology from Columbia University but the novice team also enlisted the help of educators and consultants to craft a format that reflected the latest research in early childhood development.

Integrating this research into every episode, the show emphasized problem solving skills and audience participation in a way no other children’s program has before. While “Sesame Street” used bite sized content to connect with the audience, “Blues’s Clues” used a narrative, and empowered preschoolers to help the host, Steve, figure out clues. Not surprising, Blues Clues was also a runaway success, both with kids and from a business view. .

So the next time you watch one of those catchy beer jingles online or on TV, we hope you think of Joan Ganz Cooney and her desire to “sell the alphabet to preschoolers” or think of the amazing creators of Blues Clues who changed the model for getting preschoolers to interact with the screen. Because for both, research had impact.

Kim Wilson, Co-Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

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