“The screen teaches children to be mean,” says Jennifer Ruh Linder, a psychology professor at Linfield College.
Dr. Linder’s research shows that fifth-grade girls who see relational aggression portrayed in a positive light are identified by teachers as the same students who act out those behaviors in class.
“Concerns about the negative effects of television have typically focused on physical violence,” Linder said. “We haven’t looked as much at relational hostility.
“Kids learn about rumor-spreading, the silent treatment, social exclusion and threats to withdraw love or friendship. Relational aggression is associated with numerous problems for both aggressors and victims, including loneliness, depression and eating disorders.”
Linder says children often mimic behavior they see portrayed by attractive TV characters.
“They learn that relational aggression is cool, funny and effective at getting what you want,” she said. “They also learn that it’s how to hurt the ones you love. Unlike televised physical aggression, which is most often between strangers, relational aggression most often occurs between friends and family members.”
Linder says concerned parents can reduce the time their children spend in front of the screen or even try turning off the TV for a week. They can also keep an eye on what children watch, although parents can’t always rely on the rating systems, which don’t measure hostile relationship behaviors.
“It’s important to talk to children about what they do watch,” she said. “Parents can ask their children what they would do in a similar situation and discuss whether the show is consistent with their values. Research shows that talking to kids about media content reduces the negative effects of aggressive content.
“Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is simply be aware that media affects everyone,” Linder said. “Every parent assumes it is only ‘that kid, not mine’ who has problems resulting from too much television.”
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