THURSDAY, Sept. 27, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Long before Hollywood introduced the concept of "Mean Girls," people knew that childhood can be full of name-calling, manipulation and we-won't-talk-to-you freeze-outs. Now, a new study finds that "social bullying" isn't just a real-life phenomenon. It's also common in the TV shows popular among kids aged 2 to 11.
From "American Idol" to "The Simpsons," the study authors found, the people and characters who appear on these shows are often mean. They insult one another, connive to get what they want and bully others in non-physical ways.
The researchers said 92 percent of 150 episodes reviewed featured some form of "social aggression" -- on average about 14 incidents per hour.
"Lots of attention has been paid to exposure to nudity and violence in the media, and rightfully so," said study lead author Nicole Martins, an assistant professor in the department of telecommunications at Indiana University. "But parents are largely unaware that programs could be teaching children to be cruel and mean to each other as well. Just because a show is low on physical violence doesn't mean it's harmless."
The researchers examined 150 episodes of the 50 most popular shows among kids aged 2 to 11 in 2005. They included a variety of shows for kids (such as "Hannah Montana," "Suite Life of Zack & Cody," "SpongeBob SquarePants") and a few adult shows ("American Idol," "Survivor," "The Simple Life 3").
"Social aggression is pretty prevalent," Martins said. Females tend to perpetrate it, she noted, and they are often attractive.
The researchers had a wide definition of social bullying. For example, they counted the insult wars between the judges of "American Idol" and a scene on "The Simpsons" when Mr. Burns told Homer Simpson he was a "waste of skin and fat."
"We laugh at it," Martins said, "but in real life it's harmful. Also, we don't see any punishments or negative consequences for these behaviors. People call each other mean names and say mean things about each other, and nothing happens. The victim takes it or fires back."
There was physical bullying, too. The researchers reported that they saw it in about 80 percent of the shows examined.
Martins acknowledged that TV shows wouldn't be very interesting to watch if everybody behaved properly and treated each other with respect.
"I'm not saying get rid of the conflict. No one wants to watch that," she said. "I'd challenge people in the industry to think about how they portray these aggressive behaviors and at least show that the victim is hurt by the comments." That, she added, can reduce the risk that children will imitate what they see on TV.
The research, however, doesn't prove that the behavior of children is influenced by the way people and characters act on the TV shows.
Robert Faris, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies bullying, praised the study but said it's unlikely that "any amount of hand-wringing on the part of health advocates will change programming."
Still, he said, "perhaps if viewers were able to see the underlying meanness of some forms of humor, they might not find it so funny. It is certainly possible to be hilarious without being mean, and I do sense that audiences might be starting to tire of 'snark' and sarcasm."
What to do? Faris said his research has shown that among teens, "aggression of all forms is rooted in the competition for social status, and this competition takes place within dense friendship networks."
He suggested that parents encourage kids to form "true" friendships that are more stable and less vulnerable: "Hopefully they come out of high school with four lifelong friends, not 400 Facebook friends."
The study appeared online recently in the Journal of Communication.
For more about bullying, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.