“Media messages also influence the way children perceive bullying. Unfortunately many video games, films, and television programs portray bullying as acceptable, even humorous behavior.”
-Alison Seale (2004, p. 9)

Popular media gets blamed for a lot these days, and it certainly owns a significant amount of culpability for the bullying epidemic in our society. Of course, in many ways media is merely an extension of ourselves; the media we get is the media we request through our viewership. The abundance of television shows which specialize in glorifying humiliation and the darker side of human nature are there because millions of Americans regularly tune in to watch them. As a society, we seem to enjoy gossip, conflict, and humiliation, especially when it happens to others.

Popular media plays a role in bullying both subtle and direct, and you may be surprised at just how extensively our television programming encourages and condones a bully mentality.

Bullying & Reality TV

The reality TV trend has had a profoundly negative effect on the bullying problem, particularly when it comes to the more subtle types of bully behavior. Take a show like Survivor, whose last-man-standing elimination game format has been copied by countless other television programs. On the surface, Survivor may not seem as though it explicitly encourages bullying. Yet it does so in many subtle but powerful ways. The entire point of the contest is to form social alliances and manipulate other players just enough to keep their loyalty, so you’re not voted off, while at the same time plotting against them so that you can win the game. In the process, all forms of false bravado, backstabbing, disingenuous behavior, posturing, lying, cheating, betraying, and advancing yourself through the exploitation of others is not just permitted, but explicitly encouraged.

These shows send the subtle but clear message to our kids that deceit, gossip, and verbal/physical aggression are perfectly acceptable ways to manipulate your social world towards your own personal gain. Other reality TV shows are not so subtle. In programs such as Flavor of Love or Basketball Wives, the entire format seems to revolve around ongoing conflict and a contest to see who can be the meanest.

The effect of reality TV & media aggression on children’s behavior

“In recent years schadenfreude has become a prime-time staple, with models, boyfriends, parents, overweight people and recovering addicts, among others, routinely humiliated on cable television.”
– Emily Anthes (2010, p. 39)

As viewers soak in this gossip-porn programming, they may alleviate any guilty feelings by telling themselves that they only watch because it’s entertaining, and that they recognize how dysfunctional these subjects are. To a certain extent this may be true. Just because you watch a bully on TV doesn’t mean you’ll automatically become one. But there’s a problem in letting yourself be entertained by shows that revel in narcissism, conflict, and aggression. Over time, we grow more accustomed to it, and as our familiarity towards something grows, so does our favorable attitudes toward it. (This well-established psychological fact is why you’re peppered with advertisements all day long. Simply being familiar with a product or brand name makes you more likely to buy it.) Like a person who slowly picks up the mannerisms or accent of a new place they live, people are social creatures who can’t help but incorporate into themselves the mannerisms that they are continually exposed to. Monkey can’t just see. Sooner or later, the behavior we immerse ourselves in for several hours each day will also affect what teens do.

Television can also have a very immediate impact on conflict or peer interaction. Social psychologist Sarah Coyne, who has studied the effects of reality TV shows, has found that they are loaded with instances of situational aggression that can alter a teen’s behavior. She and her colleagues from Brigham Young University found that watching a clip of relational aggression (a montage of Mean Girls) increased later aggressive tendencies in the study subjects. Not only did these students score higher on aggression tests, but they were more likely to act out aggressively to try to sabotage the job prospects of a researcher who was slightly rude to them while apparently having a bad day. So when kids watch relational aggression on TV, they become much more likely to carry that mentality with them into everyday life.

“Everyone’s concerned about violence in the media, and they should be,” says Coyne, “but we’re missing out on lots of violence out there. We need to look at these other types of aggression out there because we know that they’re having an effect on aggression.” In support of the point we made earlier, she adds that television aggression is “almost always portrayed as justified, almost always portrayed as rewarded.” (Toppo, 2008)

Bully psychology in children’s programming

It’s not just reality television that encourages and condones this type of aggressive behavior. One study on media and bullying found that kids’ entertainment programs are so full of situations in which teenage meanness is rewarded that the study’s parameters had to be adjusted to account for the universal ubiquity of relational aggression on TV. (Hampton, 2010) In other words, our children’s television programming is now so full of aggression that it’s hard to find programs without it for which to compare it to.

More subtle examples of bully psychology throughout the media

Aside from examples of outright aggression, even shows such as Law & Order can promote the bully mentality in subtle yet powerful ways. Put aside for a minute the show’s rose-colored and rather delusional view of the American justice system. With its black and white, good versus evil plots, enacted by characters who are quick with insult and seem to take personal pleasure in destroying the “bad guy,” it depicts classic bully psychology – we just don’t see it as such because it takes place against “bad guys” that the fictional narrative leads us to believe deserve it. You can watch episode after episode in which the snarky detective or district attorney will go after someone based on a mere hunch, laying down both insult and injury along the way, only to be vindicated as right in the end, thanks to some creative writing. The message: if you think someone is strange or evil of deserving of being punished, they probably are, so go ahead and persecute them because they must deserve it.

In fact, a great deal of television programming these days revolves around America’s thirst for blood lust and schadenfreude. It’s part of a trend in “today’s broader media landscape,” says TV host and executive producer Peter Funt, “which includes dumbing-down content, frenetic pacing, and increasing harshness in everything from sports and video games to movies and TV.” (Funt, 12-23-2009) There are numerous programs which disguise bully behavior under the ruse of “justice” or community service. Local newscasts run humiliation stories on a daily basis. The format of most drama shows involves establishing someone as an outcast or evil “other” and then reveling in the satisfaction and enjoyment we get when they receive the punishment they had coming to them. Even formerly educational channels such as Discovery and National Geographic have resorted to showing “prison porn,” narcissistic feuding between gypsies, and other cop shows to boost ratings. These shows have become popular because they employ the classic “one down, one up” bully psychology while offering a convenient excuse for taking pleasure in watching someone else’s suffering. As we watch the prisoners suffer through humiliation and despair as their lives unravel into oblivion, we’re entertained and feel better about ourselves, just like the bully who relies on the pain of others for a personal ego boost. On the surface, it seems so right to enjoy this persecution and humiliation, BECA– USE THESE PEOPLE DESERVE IT, or so we tell ourselves. But when you examine the facts or reasoning behind this glorified hostility, the charade falls apart, and our reasons become no more convincing than the ones our teens use in their own bullying.

No good reason: Rethinking the idea of “just” hostility

The problem with all of these shows is that they promote the lie that you can make the world a better place simply by finding the right people to destroy. This is a dangerous fallacy, and it simply isn’t true. Although get-tough policies of condemnation can make for good television drama and great sound-byte politics, research repeatedly shows the folly of such methods, and the enormous collateral harm they bring. Detailed examination of this principle is beyond the scope of this book, but let us offer a couple quick examples: Child abuse research has repeatedly shown that when it comes to molestation, kids are harmed more by our judgmental and stigmatizing responses to it than the experience itself. (GCF, 2012) Moreover, children who have such experiences and then come into contact with the justice system are 10 times more likely to become disturbed and remain disturbed than those kids who aren’t “rescued” in such a manner. (Runyan et al., 1988) In other words, that prosecutor whose condemnation we cheer for and celebrate on TV is actually 10 times the “predator” against children as those they persecute, at least if you’re basing these labels according to who harms children more. And what about our hatred for those evil “others” who perpetrate such crimes?

Once again, facts reveal this to be based more on social prejudices than actual reason: Research done by our organization, along with that of many other child welfare and abuse specialists, repeatedly shows that things like divorce, being raised by a single parent, living in poverty, having a parent who drinks or uses drugs, conflict within the home, family dysfunction, parental depression, verbal abuse, physical abuse, physical or emotional neglect, improper discipline practices, the modeling of unhealthy habits that result in a child being obese – all of these things frequently create more enduring problems and harm among kids than does the average, non-violent molestation. (GCF, 2012) So I wonder: would society feel as good about such condemnation if it attacked more mainstream shortcomings? What if we were to create a campaign against divorced parents, labeling them as evil “monsters” and “predators against children” on account of the fact that studies show 25% of children who experience divorce will show serious emotional disturbances in adulthood, which is anywhere from 2.5 times to 8 times the 3% to 10% rates of serious disturbance that are typically found in adult populations of children who were molested? (ibid) Or might such behavior, when turned against a much more common shortcoming, suddenly reveal itself to be rather cruel, sadistic, and entirely unhelpful for the goal of creating better communities while enriching the lives of others? And wouldn’t we, through our self-righteous hatred, end up doing just as much harm through our stigmatization and negative messages as those we’re upset about?

All throughout television, hostile acts, intentional humiliation, condemnation, and other forms of bullying behavior are cloaked under various story plots that conveniently justify the behavior. Yet at the end of the day, cruelty is cruelty (even when perpetrated in response to a hurtful act or against those we deem as deserving of it), and most of our reasons for this hostility fall well short of factual proof. Even when such condemnation is necessary for community safety, we certainly shouldn’t be celebrating or glorifying the destruction of another human’s life. Yet this is exactly what occurs. All throughout their lives, children are being conditioned with the idea that persecution of certain individuals or groups is a righteous thing when one claims to be on the side of good.

It’s a dangerous message we instill in our youth when just about every television program portrays the hero as the person who uncovers those who deserve it (according to their own ideas of right or wrong, their own particular reasons) and then somehow, through some strange nonsensical magic, makes the world a better place by making those evil “others” suffer. It’s a deceitful message that encourages destructive ways of problem solving while also teaching kids that hostility and inflicting torment on others is OK, so long as they deserve it. Now tell me: Can you name a single television program where the hero is someone who helps others overcome their shortcomings or deals with problems in a non-judgmental, compassionate manner? Or is the hero always someone who hunts down the problem people, judges them, and then makes it their mission to destroy them?

All of the aforementioned shows exist so that people can watch the humiliation of someone we deem as the “other,” which helps us feel a little bit better about ourselves. It’s the classic bully mentality, hidden under excuses for why someone else’s torment is actually an act of good. But when we constantly make excuses for why it’s ok to abandon compassion with certain individuals and exact suffering against one subset of people based on the presumption that they’re deserving of harsh treatment, it opens the door for teens to make excuses to bully their own set of outcasts, just as they see us adults do on a regular basis.

Monkey see, monkey do: When kids model what they see throughout the media

We should find it no surprise, then, when our children do the same thing: inventing their own reasons for why certain kids deserve it, and then setting out to destroy these people. We shouldn’t be surprised that kids make sexuality the #1 topic of bullying, and will tirelessly torment any youth whose sexual identity or orientation seems even the slightest bit off. After all, they’ve been primed with a million examples teaching them that tormenting someone because of a sexuality deemed to be abnormal is not just ok, but a heroic gesture of good. They’ve been taught that such “others” need to be shamed, humiliated, and treated in the harshest fashion. We, the supposed adults, have set the example. The youth in this nation are merely following in our footsteps.

The examples herein are but a small sampling of the many different ways that media can encourage a bully mentality. Any show that glorifies hatred, persecution, intolerance, an us versus them mindset, or which encourages viewers to take pleasure in another person’s humiliation or torment can prime kids towards bullying behavior.

Media and culture have a reciprocal relationship. While culture to a certain extent drives media, media also profoundly influences culture. If recent media trends are any indication, we should expect that bullying in our schools will continue to be a serious problem, as our youth are bombarded by role models who glorify the role of diminishing others as something heroic.