By definition, superheroes are forces of good who stand up for the little guys and are admired for their noble qualities. Unfortunately, the effects these popular characters really have on young children may be the opposite. In a study published this month in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researchers found that preschool-aged children who engaged in “superhero culture” are more likely to display some troubling behavior.
“Kids were picking up on the aggressive superhero traits as opposed to the positive characteristics,” said study author Sarah M. Coyne, associate professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. She said this seems to be a case of children latching onto the wrong messages while disregarding the positive traits of many superheroes.
For the study, Coyne and her colleagues interviewed 240 children whose parents reported they engaged with “superhero culture” to some extent. When the children were asked about their favorite traits of superheroes such as Batman, Captain America or Spider-Man, 20 percent said they liked the violent skills — including “he smashes and gets angry” and “because he can kill.”
This seemed to translate to bad behavior on the part of some children. One year after the initial interview, researchers found the kids who “frequently engage with superhero culture” are generally more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive. Meanwhile, they were no more prone than their peers to prosocial or admirable “defending” behaviors.
Before becoming the villain who tosses all the Superman toys in the trash, though, Coyne says there is a better way — and that starts by making sure there is an open dialogue and limiting children to age-appropriate media. (In other words, no Deadpool.)
“The superheroes themselves have so many redeeming qualities, so I would focus on those while de-emphasizing the violence,” she said, suggesting parents direct their children to the positive characteristics of superheroes while explaining you don’t need special powers to be a force of good. As she said, “A true superhero is one who is kind, understanding, loyal, empathetic and is able to stick up for others without resorting to violence.”
Coyne’s research also made news in 2016, after the publication of her study on the effects of Disney princesses. In the course of that research, Coyne and her colleagues found the young girls with the highest levels of interactions with princesses were more prone to gendered behavior, which may keep them from pursuing ventures typically perceived as masculine in nature — including science and technology fields. The girls who engaged the most with the princesses also had worse body images.
On the other hand, the researchers found boys who watched the occasional princess movie or played with dolls had better levels of self-esteem and were more helpful to others. In light of those findings and the superhero study, Coyne said the moral of the story is quite clear: Help children find balance by introducing new characters and interests.