In the years since the issue of bullying has garnered national attention and increasing concern, most big media companies have created campaigns designed to prevent bullying or to otherwise give people an opportunity to speak against it and raise awareness.
MTV has A Thin Line, ABC Family has Delete Digital Drama, NBC airs anti-bullying spots via its public service campaign The More You Know, Nickelodeon has anti-bullying activities on The Big Help, and Cartoon Network has a Stop Bullying Speak Up campaign.
With efforts like these, it would seem as though big media has truly taken a step forward in reaching young people to stop the bullying epidemic.
That is, until you turn on the TV. On ABC’s The Bachelor, women snipe at each other as they compete for one man’s heart. All of these insults are captured on theSmack Tracker, thus cataloging an episode-by-episode breakdown of who said what about whom. In spin-off specials like The Bachelor: Women Tell All, snarky tweets from fans of the show are broadcast live, courting a dangerous game of one-upmanship as to which members of the viewing public can be the cruelest. All of this comes courtesy of the same company that puts stars from its scripted shows front-and-center in PSAs saying that it’s time to delete digital drama.
Tune into any one of The Real Housewives series on Bravo, and you’ll see more fighting and backstabbing. Check out Teen Mom or Jersey Shore on MTV for more of the same; perhaps you’ll also catch spots for A Thin Line. Watch E! or Access Hollywood for celebrity gossip, and ESPN for occasional glorification of athletes behaving badly. In the case of some of these shows, the connection to big media’s Astroturf anti-bullying campaigns might be harder to find, but they’re all there. Bravo is owned by NBC Universal, which also owns E! and Access Hollywood. Both ABC and ESPN are owned by The Walt Disney Company, whose Friends for Change celebrity ambassadors want you to become an ‘accountabili-buddy’ and report bullying.
Big media profits from shows that promote hateful messages disguised as entertainment, also called ‘hatertainment.’ Their various attempts at ending bullying are moot when their own networks glorify, normalize, and reward the same type of behavior that most of us recognize as bullying and destructive. We cannot count big media as an ally when these companies are responsible for messages that can be so harmful for kids: in a 2011 study, the Girl Scout Research Institute found that 78 percent of girls who watch reality television believe that “gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls,” while only 54 percent of girls who do not watch reality TV agree.
In far too many documentaries and news stories, the blame for bullying has fallen squarely on the shoulders of parents, teachers, and school administrators, who are frequently accused of not taking enough preventative action. Big media companies need to also be held accountable for their role in fostering bullying behavior, and we must teach the basic media literacy concept of media as construction and an industry with a bottom line.
When watching reality television, ask your kids about what might have been left out, or how producers decide which portions of footage to use for a show. Talk to them about news, and why there is an entire industry devoted to reporting on celebrity gossip. Perhaps most importantly, ask them how they feel when they watch these shows. Moderating screen time is also a good step, as is being a positive role model—adults are not immune to hatertainment. Much like second-hand smoke has an indirect but powerful effect on our family’s health, hateful media also pollute homes in ways that may not be immediately recognizable. Yes, big media companies are powerful, but the real power lies in our own ability to filter their product.
Emily Long is Director of Communications and Development for The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project), a nonprofit organization bringing critical media fluency education to youth, parents and educators in New York City. For more on this subject, click here.