Martins and Wilson from the Universities of Indiana and Illinois (USA) conducted a survey on students that demonstrated a close link between exposure to “social aggression” on television and an increase in socially aggressive behavior at school. By “social aggression” the authors refer to “moral violence”, that is non-physical aggression that damages self-esteem or consideration for others, such as gossip, judgments, etc.
This is the first study that provides evidence for the relationship between seeing social aggression on television and an increased tendency, among primary school students, to imitate the same behaviors toward their peers at school.
The article Social Aggression on Television and Its Relationship to Children´s Aggression in the Classroom in Human Communication Research 1 [(2012), pp. 48-71] also underscores the large volume of research on physical aggression in comparison to the scarce attention given to more subtle and relational aggressive behavior, for which few studies regarding children have been carried out.
One of the hypotheses posed by Martins and Wilson predicts the existence of a relationship between children visualizing programs with a high level of social aggression and their use of social aggression. The research data reveal that a group of demographic variables greatly contribute to the increase of social aggression in children. A low socioeconomic status, poor academic performance, alienation, and higher exposure to television can predispose children to social aggression.
Another hypothesis was that this relationship between exposure to social aggression on television and social aggression in children could be stronger in girls than in boys. The authors discovered that the correlation between sex and exposure to social aggression was statistically significant in the case of girls, but not for boys.
The results of this study are discussed in terms of social cognitivity and information processing. According to the theory of social cognitivity, children can learn by observing the environments in which they are surrounded and the characters they see on television, particularly those who look like them and are attractive models to follow. It is more likely that children imitate the observed behaviors when their behaviors are rewarded rather than punished. The authors conclude that watching programs with a great deal of social aggression, perpetuated by attractive characters, cause a great amount of that same kind of aggression in the classrooms of girls, who are imitating and learning it from their socially aggressive role models in their favorite television shows.
The theory of information processing records the effects of media exposure to violence over time, focusing on the acquisition and reinforcement of aggressive sequences or mental processes of familiar events stored in the memory. From testing this theory, the authors conclude that regular viewers of programs with a high level of social aggressive content mentally acquire and store scripts that promote gossip and insults in the classroom.
The survey was conducted on a sample of 527 children from ages 5 through 12, approximately split between girls and boys. Two schools were chosen from Vermillion County (Illinois) based on the socioeconomic diversity. The studies were carried out during school hours. The statistical treatment was suitable and relevant moderating variables were analyzed. The authors themselves note the inherent limitations to their correlational study, and therefore the need for longitudinal investigation to verify if the correlation lasts over a long period of time.
The study makes an important contribution to the analysis of socially aggressive behaviors in the classroom and their relationship to violent television content. The results are of special interest for parents and educators. They provide further proof that the consumption of violent media content has direct effects on children, who can become victims of rejection from their peers and experience loneliness, depression, and a diminished self-esteem. All of these consequences are derived from learned and imitated behaviors of aggressors on the television screen.