From Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” to the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries,” every teen and tween show at some point brings in gossip or bullying to amp up the drama. But years of watching relational aggression on television is linked to more peer bullying in real life years down the line, suggests a new study in the February issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
Brigham Young University associate professor Sarah Coyne tracked 467 teenagers within a larger longitudinal family life study. She surveyed the students once a year about their television watching and peer relationships beginning at ages 10 to 13 and continuing three years, through the middle-to-high school transition. The students listed their favorite television shows, which were then separately rated for physical and relational violence by more than 750 raters who were in their 20s. Shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Gossip Girl,” for example, lived up to their names; both were highly popular shows that also rated high on relational aggression. For physical violence, serial-killer drama “Dexter” and teacher-turned-meth-dealer series “Breaking Bad” were teenagers’ favorites.
Coyne found students exposed to so-called “relational aggression"—rumor-mongering, ostracizing students, and so on—on television early on were more aggressive to their own friends three years later. For example, boys and girls alike were more likely to agree that, “When mad at a person, I try to make sure that the person is left out of group activities.”
Interestingly, while Coyne found students tended to watch more physically violent shows as older adolescents if they had been exposed to them as younger teenagers, that wasn’t the case for relational bullying.
Moreover, she noted that while physical violence in television shows was portrayed as negative and abnormal, social bullying was portrayed as more normal. That was echoed in a separate but related study by Coyne’s graduate student researcher, Halie Foell Stout, which found that out of 90 top-grossing teen movies from 1980 to 2009, 94 percent included relational aggression. “Acts of relational aggression are portrayed as not justified and not humorous,” Stout wrote, “However, acts of relational aggression were portrayed as rewarded.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.