Social Bullying in Television Programming | Mental Health Blog

Date: 10/11/2012    Written by: Beth Levine

Bullies on TV

Is it art imitating life or life imitating art when the shows on television drawing an audience of preschoolers and elementary school kids regularly feature bullying?  And, according to recent research, the bullying is not being done by some peripheral character who gets a come-uppance in the end.

The study, conducted at Indiana University in Bloomington, found that a whopping 92 percent of the episodes of television shows that were analyzed contained instances of "social aggression."1 This translates to an average of 14 bullying incidents in each viewing hour.  The 150 episodes were selected from the 50 most popular television shows among children under the age of 12 in 2005.  Included were cartoons such as "SpongeBob Squarepants," shows with child actors such as "Suite Life of Zack and Cody" and "Hannah Montana," and family-oriented reality shows such as "American Idol" and "Survivor."

Mistreatment of others was widespread in every type of show the researchers assessed.  They noticed that verbal abuse was often initiated by attractive females on the shows.  Perhaps that is meant to soften the blow and avoid the stereotype of large male schoolyard bullies in this particular age group.  However, adults are well aware that bullies come in all shapes and sizes and "mean girl" cliques are a cliché for a well-earned reason.  Choosing attractive characters to spout this dialogue may be partially due to the fact that the vast majority of people on television are good looking, but this is also worrisome because attractive people would be more likely to be admired by viewers,2 thus encouraging children to emulate them.

The examples of social bullying counted by the scientists included everything from insult trading between adults to a boss demeaning an employee.  While it is all played for the entertainment value and helps gives viewers a laugh, younger children--particularly those 6 and under--can't distinguish fiction from reality3 and grow quickly accustomed to this type of behavior.  As with studies of watching violent programming, children become immune to any initial shock value and start to think of bullying as perfectly acceptable.4  In fact, approximately 80 percent of the episodes analyzed contained instances of physical abuse as well.

In an era in which children not only have to worry about how their peers treat them at school or on the bus, but across a wide variety of social media such as Facebook and Twitter as well, no one should be doing anything to promote the idea of bullying among children.  Pre-teens and teenagers consider or commit suicide due the taunts of bullies that they have to face on a daily basis and feel they have no hope of escaping5 -- to the point that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.6 And for children to be learning that bullying behavior of any kind is not only okay but actually desirable because they are attempting to be like their "role models" on TV is simply appalling. Then again, it's probably worth noting that some studies shave found that bullying is not so much a learned behavior as it is hardwired into the brain.

In any case, since it is highly unlikely that television programming will change as long as it is making money for studio executives and advertisers, the best way to fight this sort of thing is by being careful about what we say, do, and allow our children to watch at home.  An obvious choice is screening the television shows we allow our children to view, especially when they are very young. 

And if they do like a show that has some mean, bullying types, watch with your children and pause the episode to discuss what the characters are doing and how it is wrong.  When we help them understand the negative impact of this behavior--even if it isn't always shown on TV--we can help them develop their sense of empathy and lessen the chances that our own children will act in the same way.  It might also be beneficial to initiate a dialogue about how other characters could react differently; for example, instead of hanging their head in shame, a character might tell the bully off or a bystander might come to the victim's defense.  All of these can help teach your children how to react appropriately if they become involved in a bullying incident at some point.  And sadly, that is highly likely these days.


1 Dotinga, Randy. "TV for kids filled with social bullying." My Fox Alabama. 27 September 2012. Accessed 2 October 2012. <>.

2 Williams, Ray B. "Why we pay more attention to beautiful people." Psychology Today. 6 August 2011. Accessed 3 October 2012. <>.

3 Tullos, Ansley and Woolley, Jacqueline D. "The Development of Children's Ability to Use Evidence to Infer Reality Status." National Institutes of Health. January-February 2009. Accessed 3 October 2012. <>.

4 "Children and TV Violence." American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. March 2011. Accessed 3 October 2012. <>.

5 "Bullying and Suicide." Bullying Statistics. 2009. Accessed 3 October 2012. <>.

6 "About Teen Suicide." KidsHealth. (Accessed 4 Oct 2012.) <>

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    Submitted by Suzanne on
    March 14, 2013 - 8:04am

    There is something else parents can do to fight bullying. When my daughter was in first grade she was bullied. I disregarded the advice to "let the kids work it out themselves" or "let her learn to handle it herself". I moved strongly and aggressively to stop it by involving the principal that very day. I let her know in no uncertain terms that the bullying would not be tolerated at any point and that I wouldn't stop complaining and would even take legal action against the school and parents of the bullies. She got the message and called the parents of the bullies in for a meeting the next day. My daughter was never bullied again. Had I hesitated I believe the behavior would have continued. By not punishing such behavior immediately we only reinforce it, even cause a habit to form. And, once formed, a habit is difficult to eradicate. Later on when I was a school volunteer, a recess monitor, I observed a group of "mean girls" bullying another child. I sent all of the bullies to the principal immediately. Fortunately, she treated it as a serious matter and that group paid a price for their behavior. They were never a problem again. We all lead busy lives but nothing should take precedence over the health and safety of our kids. I urge all parents not to hesitate when their child is bullied; act immediately and be persistent. By the way, my daughter grew to be a strong, independent, and successful adult. Intervening as I did enabled her to develop normally. I'm not sure that would have happened if I had left her to cope with those bullies on her own.

    Submitted by Kim on
    March 14, 2013 - 10:44am

    You are a great mother....wish I had you by my side growing up!

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