Who’s your favorite superhero? Batman? Thor? Wonder Woman? In our modern society, we have a variety of caped crusaders to root for, all with varying powers and abilities. However, they do have one trait in common: they are defenders. Our media is inundated with images of these heroes saving people, cities, and countries. Through them, we’re learning to be better defenders, right? A recent study done by School of Family Life professor Dr. Sarah Coyne found that the opposite was true- children who were exposed to superhero media were more likely to become aggressive rather than prosocial.
The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology in January 2017, consisted of two interviews each of 240 children ages 3-6.5 and their parents, once at the beginning of the study and another a year later. Parents were shown images of common superheroes (e.g., Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, X-men) and asked to choose the superhero that their child most identified with and then to rate how much their child identified with that superhero. They were also asked questions regarding their children’s viewing behaviors, and then asked to rate how aggressive their child was. The children were each given a poster with 10 popular male and female superheroes (e.g., Spiderman, Ironman, Captain America, Thor, Superman, Storm) and were asked to identity their favorite superhero. They were then asked to explain why they liked this particular superhero the best. Children could also identify a superhero not on the poster if they liked. The children were also observed in a lab session.
Of the parents surveyed, only 28% responded that superheroes positively influenced their children. One mother backed up her belief by stating “They can be good role models because they are defending the right and the defenseless.” Contrast this with a different mother who said: “I am not a fan of superheroes because although they are supposed to support and defend ‘good,’ they tend to promote fighting and violence . . . I don’t want to promote superhero or superhero play at home because it tends to lead my children to violence. I don’t want them to act out violence and aggression as a way to entertain themselves.” She was part of the 12% of parents who believed that superheroes negatively influenced their kids. Of this group, 66% cited violence as their paramount concern. The largest group of parents, 60%, had largely indifferent or mixed thoughts on superhero media, one mother saying: “I like the positive aspects of superheroes, helping people, etc., but think they are depicted too violently for children.”
Of the children, 20% of them cited violent action as the admired trait. A five-year-old boy said: “He’s big and can punch.” A four-year-old boy selected Captain America as his favorite superhero “because he can kill.”
“Preschoolers who were highly engaged with superheroes were more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive 1 year later,” said Dr. Coyne, “even after controlling for initial levels of physical and relational aggression and their exposure to other aggressive media. Although superhero programs contain high amounts of prosocial behavior and defending behaviors, preschool boys’ and girls’ engagement with superheroes was not related to increased frequency of these behaviors across time.” Her findings corroborate past research on the subject.
She says: “I hope parents [will] be interested in these results. Many parents specifically said they liked the superhero culture because it taught their children to be better defenders….but this wasn’t the case in our study. They were actually more aggressive!” The researcher hopes that parents will limit their preschoolers’ exposure to superhero media and that they will discuss the characters with their children.
This year, Dr. Coyne will conduct a follow up study with the same children, now nearly ten years old. She will be researching “things like the effect of the superhero culture on the development of the muscular ideal.”