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Bullying in Popular Media & TV Shows

Updated: Jan 15, 2022

Bullying is something often portrayed in TV shows and movies. It is because almost everyone can relate to stories about bullying. When a storyline reflects bullying in the real world, it is both compelling for audiences while also acting as a powerful tool for change.

Researcher Yalda Uhls from UCLA said "Our research found that when teens watch TV shows that portray mental health issues, they actually talk about it with their peers, parents and partners,"

At the same time, 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.

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.

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.

Mean Girls (2004), a popular movie among Gen-Z that explores how strongly social dynamics can affect us

Television can also have a very immediate impact on conflict or peer interaction. Psychologists argue that the media sends conflicting messages about the seriousness of bullying, essentially glorifying bullying for entertainment.

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.

Another problem about bullying on TV is that oftentimes the bullies are portrayed as the cool, popular kids. This leads to many children forming the idea that they must be mean to their peers in order to be at the top of the social hierarchy.


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