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In popular programmes like Squid Game and South Park, aggression is heavily featured, sometimes accompanied by a strong dose of humour. There are concerns that teenagers see too much aggression in their favourite programmes and become more aggressive as a result, especially when the aggression portrayed is combined with humour. Communication scientist Amber van der Wal examined this notion in her doctoral thesis. According to her research, aggression isn’t featured as frequently in the favourite programmes of Dutch teenagers as is feared. Humour occurs far more frequently. Nor did she find a link with aggressive behaviour. She will defend her thesis at the University of Amsterdam on Wednesday 16 March.

a person is watching the popular programme Squid Game
Watching the popular programme Squid Game

‘People worry a great deal about teenagers’ frequent exposure to aggression in popular programmes,' says communication scientist and media researcher Amber van der Wal. ‘There is a fear that young people will imitate the portrayed aggression. Especially if aggression is combined with humour and therefore perceived as a “just a joke”.’ But, according to Van der Wal, research on what exactly teenagers are exposed to was lacking.

Therefore, Van der Wal carried out three empirical studies into the types and prevalence of aggression and humour in the favourite programmes of Dutch teenagers, how their preferences develop as they get older, and whether there is a link with their levels of aggression.

Aggression is featured in only 9% of scenes

According to Van der Wal, previous research suggests that the vast majority of popular shows are “aggressive”. ‘But these studies only looked at a small sample, such as the top 50 most watched shows, which nowhere near covers everything that teenagers watch. Not only that, but these studies also used a fairly rough measure of aggression: Every show featuring violence was classified as “aggressive”.’ According to Van der Wal, there’s a difference between a programme that contains a single violent incident and one that’s full of violence. She therefore chose a different, more robust method. She asked Dutch teenagers to name their favourite programmes and checked each scene for the presence of aggression. ‘It’s hugely time consuming but it gives you a far more nuanced picture.’

This analysis found that aggression did indeed occurin 61% of the programmes but in only 9% of the scenes. In addition,  major differences between boys and girls came to light. ‘Boys have more than twice as great a preference for physical aggression and, for example, for realistically portrayed, rewarded aggression in television programmes than girls.’ Finally, we found that in half of the scenes, aggression was combined with humour. ‘This prompted us to look in more detail at humour.’

Humour is a far more important component

To identify the presence of humour, Van der Wal distinguished between ten different types of humour: disparaging humour (i.e. verbally and non-verbally aggressive humour), slapstick (physically aggressive humour), self-defeating humour, sexual humour, irreverent humour, coping humour, parody, wordplay, incongruity and absurdism. For humour too, she researched what types of humour occurred on a scene-level.

‘Humour occurred in more than half of the scenes and all ten types of humour were actually present in the favourite television programmes,’ says Van der Wal. ‘But in hugely varying degrees and certain combinations occurred more frequently.’ In her view, these combinations are important because they determine how you assess the presence of humour. ‘Sexual humour, for example, is often regarded as negative and crude. But when it goes hand in hand with coping humour, it has a different connotation. In that case it becomes something positive because it removes the tension from a topic that teenagers find hard to deal with.’ Boys seemed to prefer aggressive humour types, whereas girls seemed to prefer shows with coping humour.

Coping humour increases and aggressive humour decreases

Finally, Van der Wal looked at how teenagers’ preferences developed between the ages of 10 and 17, specifically for aggressive humour types and coping humour, and whether there could be a link with aggressive behaviour. To do this, she used annual questionnaires which were completed by teenagers. Preferences for coping humour increased strongly the older the teenagers became, whereas preferences for aggressive humour decreased with age. Van der Wal did not find a link with aggressive behaviour. ‘This is a preliminary and optimistic conclusion,’ she says, ‘It doesn’t mean there is no impact at all, but over an extended period we did not find a link between frequent exposure to aggressive humour and subsequent aggressive behaviour.’

Humour can be a powerful tool

So, according to Van der Wal, humour is a very important component of the media entertainment that teenagers consume. This finding may also steer the public debate into a more positive direction. ‘If it can help teenagers cope with something as scary and uncertain as the recent pandemic or to convey important health messages, humour can act as a powerful tool in media entertainment.’

Details of thesis

Amber van der Wal, 2022, ‘All Joking Aside: Towards an Understanding of Humor and Aggression in Adolescents’ Media Entertainment.’ Supervisors: Prof. P.M. Valkenburg and Dr. J. Piotrowski.

Time and location

Wednesday 16 March, 16:00, Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam