Superheroes are usually thought of as the “good guys.” New research, however, finds that preschoolers often pick up on less positive traits such as aggression.
The finding stems from a study by Brigham Young University (BYU) family life professor Dr. Sarah M. Coyne. Coyne decided to study what it was, exactly, that preschool-aged boys and girls took away from exposure to superhero culture and it wasn’t the many positive traits that shone through.
“So many preschoolers are into superheroes and so many parents think that the superhero culture will help their kids defend others and be nicer to their peers,” Coyne said, “but our study shows the exact opposite. Kids pick up on the aggressive themes and not the defending ones.”
Coyne found that children who frequently engage with superhero culture are more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive one year later.
She even found the children were not more likely to be defenders of kids being picked on by bullies and were not more likely to be prosocial.
The study published this week in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.
Last spring, Coyne authored a study on the effects of “Disney Princess” culture on young children, finding the perpetuation of stereotypes that could have damaging effects. Like her recommendations about princess culture, Coyne echoes the same sentiment with superhero culture: These findings do not suggest that parents need to totally disengage their children from superheroes.
“Again, I’d say to have moderation,” Coyne said. “Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have superheroes be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with.”
Findings like these give parents the opportunity to have a conversation with their children. Coyne says to not be afraid of pointing out the positives as well as the negatives of the media their children are consuming.
Coyne theorizes that a reason why children may latch on to the violent behavior and not the prosocial behavior of superheroes is in part due to the complexity of the superhero media.
The vast majority of superhero programs are not created for preschool children, even though the current study found that many preschoolers still regularly watched superhero media.
These programs contain complex storylines that interweave violence and prosocial behavior, and preschoolers do not have the cognitive capability to pick out the wider moral message that is often portrayed.
Coyne also states that there is likely some additional desensitization associated with consuming violent media. Reduction in cognitive and emotional responses has been shown to be associated with exposure to violent media.
That reduction of response to the victims of violence on the TV screen, computer, or tablet, could be associated to a lack of empathy for the victims of violence on the playground or at school.
Participants in the study consisted of 240 children whose parents responded about the level of engagement their children had with superhero culture. Parents were asked how often their children watched superhero media and how much they identified with various superheroes.
Children were also individually interviewed, asked to identify 10 popular superheroes, then identify their favorite superhero, and explain why they liked that superhero the best.
The children’s responses in the study about their favorite superheroes provided important insight in the study: Various responses included superhero merchandise (26 percent), image (20 percent), and interpersonal characteristics (21 percent).
Researchers then used a subcode to examine any defending or violent themes. Of those who specified characteristics in superheroes, 10 percent noted some defending ability of the superheroes: “Because he shoots webs and he saves people.”
Twenty percent of these children associated their favorite superhero with some type of violent skills. For example, “He’s big and can punch” and “He smashes and gets angry.”
Some were milder, while others suggested blatant aggression. “Because he can smash and destroy everything, and he doesn’t care because he’s a big bully.”
Another child stated that Captain America was his favorite superhero “because he can kill.”
The remaining 70 percent of skills-related comments by children were benign in nature: “Because he is big and strong” and “Because he is cool and can fly.”
Coauthors on the study included fellow BYU professors Laura Stockdale and David Nelson, along with BYU graduate students Kevin Collier and Lee Essig, as well as Jennifer Linder from Linfield College.
Source: Brigham Young University