Cool to Be Cruel: Mean-spiritedness in 21st Century Children's TV Sitcoms

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Much has been written about the proven negative effects viewing television violence has on children and yet there is another kind of violent role-modeling embedded in an unlikely place: children’s television sitcoms. This content analysis investigated live-action children’s half-hour sitcoms and discovered the presence of relational aggression and superiority humor, both of which rely on brutally treating other humans as inferior. The television characters seek revenge on each other, intentionally make others look bad or stupid, humiliate peers and parents, and are rarely punished for their mean-spiritedness and cruelty. The children’s sitcoms are behavioral blueprints of lies and deceit, as the characters unashamedly cheat others, defraud parents and other adults, and attempt to make peers and teachers look stupid and in the vernacular of the culture, “clueless.” Further, stereotypes are not only presented as acceptable, but are reinforced by frequent inclusion into the action. This study discovered myriad examples of mean-spiritedness and cruelty on the part of characters in the programs, ranging in frequency from 7 to 31.25 per half-hour episode, averaging 33.75 per hour for programs viewed. The study includes recommendations for parents and educators to help offset the possible negative effects of these programs.


Keywords: Behavioral Blueprints of Lies and Deceit, Children's Television, Television, Children's, Children's Sitcoms, Behavioral Violence, TV and Mean-spirited Behavior, Mean-spirited Behavior
Stream: Media Arts Practices: Television, Multimedia, Digital, Online and Other New Media
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Cool to Be Cruel


Dr. Melle Starsen

Assistant Professor, Communication, Liberal Arts Division, Upper Iowa University
Fayette, Iowa, USA

Assistant professor of Communication for 12 years at a small, private university with an international and online presence; teaching television history, editing, writing for media, television production, media law and ethics, journalistic and online writing, and public speaking. Previously an instructor in Communication for 10 years teaching screenwriting and speech. Published author with two novels, short stories in academic journals, and articles in national publications and journals. TV producer-director-writer at university PBS affiliate for nine years, producing documentary programs and PSAs. Researched, wrote and acted as location unit manager for American documentary on Dr Who. Journalist and freelance writer for 20 years, with articles in publications such as The New York Times. Wrote screenplay that is currently in pre-production. Appeared as extra in two films. Ten years experience acting and doing technical work in theatre. Ongoing research interests include: 1) using media such as film in successful college teaching; 2) importing real-life experience into university teaching pedagogy; and 3) researching and studying the millennial generation, so-called “echo boomers,” and their visually-oriented learning styles and short attention spans. Hobbies include photography, fossil hunting and collecting sea pottery shards from the UK.

Ref: A12P0249