By Ivory King
Written on 4/26/2018
We take for granted the education that is often woven into children’s television shows. Sesame Street and others of its kind have been a resource that has taught basic lessons for decades. But though some of these shows are education oriented, the vast majority of media aimed at younger people are fictional narratives. Depending on the age demographic the show is geared towards, they might incorporate some elements of awareness regarding any number of themes - for example environmental awareness, wild animals, or life in other countries. But it’s possible that kids might be learning about bullying - something that could be helpful since it is common in schools and other places that they spend time. Depending on how it’s portrayed, it can be a learning opportunity, or it can normalize damaging behavior.
Nearly every show has some sort of villain - they are nearly indispensable for drama or plot development. But more often than not that villain is of a mundane variety - some sort of bully. When kids are watching shows that match their age level, this can be productive, but often the nuances of a show get lost on younger viewers. The episode that portrays these negative characters often get what’s coming to them in the end to older children might be too complicated for a younger audience, who instead come away with the idea that social aggression is okay. They may not make it to the end of the episode with an intact attention span, or they may simply not be able to discern the relation to events that come later on. According to researcher Nicole Martins, “A typical plot line for shows like Nickelodeon’s mega-hit iCarly and Disney’s Hannah Montana involves rude, sarcastic, or otherwise bad behavior -- often delivered by the sidekick or best friend. By the end of the show, these "mean girls" generally get their comeuppance, but younger kids may not connect this with the earlier actions.”
People of all ages are subjected to abuse, and that abuse has become subtler in some ways and more extreme in others. Though we most often think of the physical violence that classic schoolyard tropes invoke, it pops up verbally in social situations much more often - and online constantly. Shows like Pretty Little Liars and Glee take these types of aggression in either the premise of the show or in episodic story arcs, giving space to the unique torture inflicted on girls or LGBT characters that can be insidious and incredibly damaging. Other shows like 13 Reasons Why depict how cyberbullying can have extremely tragic consequences. Suicide, as well as mass shootings have been brought up as potential fallout from the cruelty that kids can inflict on each other.
While more content doesn’t necessarily mean that we have more tools to protect or teach about bullying, it does make starting conversations a little easier. Though it can be impossible to know when a plot will take a turn for the worse, characters behaving badly can still be a learning opportunity. It is extra work, but social aggression happens on 9 out of 10 shows that WebMD monitored related to this subject. “Even shows made for very young children, like the cartoon Rugrats, often have characters like the uber-bully Angelica, who exist solely to torment the other characters. Martins says the fact that most of the social aggression kids see on TV occurs in comedies presents a special challenge. ‘We know that when you couch aggression in humor it increases the chances of imitation because children are less likely to recognize that what is being said is hurtful.’”
It also would be beneficial to take a moment to counteract these messages with a growing amount of media that is meant to encourage positive behavior and nourish empathy. Sesame Street dedicated two episodes to bullying, the animated series Arthur also has episodes on the topic. There’s also a McGruff anti-bullying short.
While watching PSAs won’t counteract hours of toxic behavior being shown on TV, they are another way to start conversations about coping with the Mean Girls (or guys) at school. Talking about and showing kids content related to bullying not only helps kids learn how to react to it, but it makes it less likely that they will use the same tactic themselves against other kids. Instead, we gain the opportunity to teach conflict resolution and empathy. These skills counteract bullying and halt the spread of that behavior to its victims, as well as give kids a way to stand up for each other.