The development of relational aggression: The role of media exposure
By Jamie M. Ostrov
Jamie M. Ostrov is an associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Development Laboratory at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. He received a BA in Psychology from Colgate University, an MSEd in Psychological Services from the University of Pennsylvania, and MA and PhD degrees in child (developmental) psychology from the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. He is an associate editor of Early Childhood Research Quarterly. His publications have appeared in such journals as Child Development, Development & Psychopathology and Psychological Review. He has served as an expert panelist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education on their initiative to develop a uniform definition of bullying, and has consulted with the Children’s Television Workshop on its bullying prevention efforts. His research focuses on the development of aggression subtypes and has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. Author website.
How do children become aggressive? What factors are associated with the onset and course of different types of aggressive behavior in children? What developmental outcomes are associated with aggressive behavior? How can we best reduce different types of aggressive behavior in young children? These and other questions are the focus of the research my colleagues and I have been addressing for the last several years.
Types of aggressive behavior
We have been examining several types of aggressive behavior in my laboratory, but the two primary types that we consider are physical and relational aggression. Physical aggression includes hitting, kicking, punching, pulling, pushing and taking things away from others (Dodge, Coie, & Lynam, 2006). A second type of behavior that is intended to hurt, harm or injure another person uses the relationship or the threat of the removal of the relationship as the means of harm and is referred to as relational aggression (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Relational aggression, which is the main topic of this article, includes social exclusion, friendship withdrawal threats (e.g., “I won’t be your friend unless…”), giving the silent treatment and spreading malicious secrets, lies or gossip.
We have been primarily focused on early childhood (i.e., 3-5-year-olds) in order to understand how these behaviors emerge. Some additional prototypical examples of relational aggression during this developmental period include: “You can’t come to my birthday party,” and “You can’t play with us.” Interestingly, during early childhood, we find that these behaviors can be sophisticated (e.g., malicious secret spreading), but they are often rather direct/overt, based on the here and now, and with the identity of the perpetrator usually always known (Ostrov et al., 2004).
Our research typically involves careful observations of young children’s naturally occurring peer interactions in their classroom and on the playground. We have documented that relational aggression exists in early childhood and is easily observed by teachers and research assistants (Ostrov & Keating, 2004) and may be reproduced in brief (i.e., nine minute) semi-structured limited resource tasks (in which three children are asked to color a series of pictures and one good crayon and two functionally useless white crayons are provided; Ostrov & Keating, 2004; Ostrov et al., 2004). Our observers typically observe each child for 10 minutes on eight separate days in order to get a good sense of their aggressive behavior. Using systematic recording procedures we have been able to observe relational aggression in children as young as 30 months old and we have found that these behaviors are relatively stable over a two-year period, suggesting that they do not change much without intervention (Crick, Ostrov et al., 2006). Our observers and participating teachers generally agree on the rates of physical and relational aggression.
We have also found that relational aggression is associated with problems during early childhood. For example, relational aggression is associated with future peer rejection or reports that other children do not like the focal child (Crick, Ostrov et al., 2006). Peer rejection is associated with a number of social and psychological problems across development (Bierman, 2004), and is an issue during early childhood because a key developmental task is the initiation of peer relationships.
In addition, we have documented that relational aggression is associated with future relational victimization (or the receipt of relational aggression from one’s peers). That is, children that display aggression to their peers often receive these behaviors back in kind from their peers (Ostrov, 2008). In addition, in keeping with a social process model of peer victimization, the links over time might be somewhat indirect in nature. For example, children that are relationally aggressive are often disliked by others, and it is this peer rejection which in turn makes them an easier target for future peer victimization (Ostrov, 2008). In keeping with this finding, using a large national dataset from NICHD, we have also documented that relational aggression in 3rd grade is associated with loneliness in 5th grade, which in turn predicts relational victimization in 6th grade (Ostrov & Godleski, in press).
Social influences on aggression
As a developmental psychologist, I am also interested in how children learn about or are socialized to display aggressive behavior. My former graduate student, Stephanie Godleski, PhD, and I theorized that various socializing agents (e.g., parents, siblings, peers, media) would influence the onset and course of relationally aggressive behavior (Ostrov & Godleski, 2010). For example, we have found that conflict within the parent-child relationship is associated with relational aggression (Ostrov & Bishop, 2008) and that older and younger siblings’ rates of relational aggression with peers are similar (Ostrov et al., 2006).
Consistent with findings with older children (Yeung & Leadbeater, 2007), we also found that children that were victimized by their peers learned from these experiences and increased their aggressive behavior over time. Specifically, rates of relational (but not physical) aggression increased in preschool children that were relationally victimized, whereas rates of physical (but not relational) aggression increased in children that were physically victimized (Ostrov, 2010). These findings support a social learning perspective in which children learn from various social models, including prior victimization experiences. In support of this larger theoretical framework, we also hypothesized that exposure to relationally aggressive models within the media may influence the development of relational aggression in young children, much like violent media exposure does for physical aggression.
Role of media exposure
In our first test of how media exposure may impact young children’s rates of aggressive behavior, we conducted our standard observations and teacher-report assessments and we also asked parents to complete standard instruments about their child’s media diet (Anderson & Dill, 2000). Parents indicated their child’s favorite TV programs, movies, video and computer games, and how violent or educational these programs were. We replicated past effects with regard to exposure to violent media and associations with physical aggression, but an interesting finding emerged between educational media exposure and relational aggression. That is, we found a positive association between educational media exposure (e.g., programs that teach children character development or social skills) and future relational aggression. When we examined some of the highly endorsed programs we generated a hypothesis that the children might be learning from the “friendship problems” that often depicted relational aggression, but they were not connecting this problematic behavior with the conflict resolution skills that were introduced at the end of the program. This interpretation fit with what is known about young children’s (3-5-year-olds) attentional limitations and their difficulty in understanding story plots (Ostrov, Gentile, & Crick, 2006). It is also consistent with prior work that found that only 19 percent of children in a kindergarten sample could identify the correct moral lesson in an episode of a popular children’s TV program, and 89 percent of the children focused on superfluous information and did not understand or misinterpreted the intended moral lesson (Mares & Acosta, 2008).
In our second study of media effects (Ostrov, Gentile, & Mullins, 2013), we attempted to replicate our prior novel finding and to provide a more robust test of our new hypothesis that educational media exposure was associated with increases in relational aggression over time. In a new sample of preschool children, we again collected observational and teacher assessments of physical and relational aggression in the fall and spring of one year. We also obtained parent-reports of their child’s media exposure. Furthermore, we were able to follow-up with a subsample of these children roughly two years later and obtained parental reports of their aggression. In keeping with our predictions, we found that exposure to educational media was associated with increases in relational aggression during an academic year, as measured by both the observations and the teacher report methods. As we predicted, we did not find a corresponding association between educational media exposure and increases in physical aggression, as these programs do not appear to model physical aggression. In addition, we found that exposure to educational media predicted increases in relational aggression over a two-year period. Thus, this second study provides further evidence in support of our hypothesis concerning the role of educational media and the development of relational aggression.
We are left concluding that educational media may have an unintended effect of increasing relational aggression among young children. It should be stated that educational media also have some beneficial effects such as a reduction in physical aggression and an increase in prosocial behavior (i.e., sharing and helping others; see Ostrov et al., 2006). However, parents and policymakers should be informed of both the positive and possible negative effects of educational media exposure for young children. Parents may wish to restrict access to this programming or actively mediate the viewing (i.e., engage children during the program and help connect the moral lesson with the behavior depicted by the aggressive characters). Policymakers should work to ensure that the media industry is providing high quality educational and informational content. Moreover, the content labels should convey appropriate guidance and must be comprehensible to parents of various educational backgrounds.
There are implications of these media effects studies for intervention work with young children. My colleagues Greta Massetti, PhD (now at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and former graduate student Kirstin Gros, PhD (now at the Medical University of South Carolina) and I have developed an intervention program called the Early Childhood Friendship Project. In designing this intervention, we were mindful that any “friendship problems” or aggressive behavior that we depicted via puppet shows or stories would need to be connected to a resolution in close temporal proximity. We also made sure to keep our program developmentally appropriate and use behavioral reinforcement or developmentally appropriate labeled praise to encourage children to adopt our social skills and lessons rather than aggressive behavior.
Our first intervention study (Ostrov et al., 2009) was designed using available best practices and evidence-based models to reduce aggression and peer victimization and increase social skills, prosocial behavior and friendship formation skills (e.g., Reid & Webster-Stratton, 2001). Classrooms were randomly assigned to an intervention or control condition that lasted six weeks. We found moderate to large reductions in physical and relational aggression and peer victimization in the intervention classrooms relative to the control classrooms. We also documented moderate increases in prosocial behavior (e.g., inclusion of peers and sharing) in children that received the program compared to those that did not. Thus it appears that when steps are taken to carefully connect social skills or character development lessons with problematic aggressive behavior and coupled with developmentally appropriate reinforcement for engaging in positive behavior, we do not see the unintended effects that were present in our two media effects studies. We have just finished a replication trial of an expanded eight-week program and hope to share our findings soon.
In sum, our research program has addressed the role of various social influences on children’s aggressive behavior. In keeping with a developmental psychopathology perspective (Sroufe, 1997), multiple factors and multiple influences likely play a role in the onset and course of aggressive behavior. I have highlighted one influence, which is the role of educational media exposure in the development of relational aggression. A great deal of attention has been given to the role that violent media exposure has on physical aggression, and this is certainly a crucial public health issue that requires our attention (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2001). I would argue that we should not limit our focus to the role of violent media or just focus on physical aggression or violence. When girls are aggressive, they are much more likely to display relational aggression relative to physical aggression (e.g., Putallaz et al., 2007), which suggests that if we want to address the aggressive behavior of girls and boys we must have an appreciation for the various influences on children’s behavior as well as an understanding of the different means by which children can harm others.
I will be forever grateful for the mentorship, guidance and friendship provided by the late Nicki R. Crick, PhD. I gratefully acknowledge Douglas A. Gentile, PhD for his support and collaboration on our media effects research projects. I recognize Adam D. Mullins for his assistance and motivation to complete our follow-up study. I thank the families, teachers and directors for their participation. Special thanks to my former and current trainees in the UB Social Development Laboratory.
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