In movies, comic books and other media, superheroes are the good guys, defending a sometimes-battered public against a villain. It's supposed to be a good thing when Superman punches out a bad guy or Spider-Man uses super-strong gossamer thread to tie up a bank robber.
But parents who hope their little kids learn to defend the defenseless by watching superheroes will be disappointed, according to a new study led by researchers at Brigham Young University which found that tykes embrace the aggression, but miss the altruism shown.
When they see the on-screen battle between good and evil, 4-year-olds remember the punching, not why it happened, says the study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. A year later, those children are more behaviorally and relationally aggressive.
"I believe you can talk about superhero culture with kids in a really positive way," said Sarah M. Coyne, professor of family life at BYU and the study's lead author. "Superheroes really are defenders on a lot of levels. But the media children are exposed to is so aggressively violent for that age that it's hard to pick up on anything else."
Not all parents realize what their children are missing. The researchers found that while some parents complain about the violence depicted in superhero encounters, "even more said they like superheroes because they teach my child to defend when others are being picked on and to be kind," said Coyne. "It just isn't happening."
Aggressors and defenders
The researchers measured aggression by asking parents of kids who were 4 years old, on average, about fairly typical behaviors like hitting, kicking, pinching and pulling hair.
Defenders can be non-aggressive or aggressive. It's a matter of approach. Non-aggressive defenders ask a playground bully to stop picking on someone, for instance, while an aggressive defender punches the bully in the face, Coyne said.
Neither type of defense was triggered by engagement with superheroes, she noted.
Using statistical models, Coyne said they considered how much superhero media the 240 children in the study watched, how much they identified with superheroes and how much that predicted various behaviors a year later. They also controlled for how much aggressive and defending behavior a child showed at the earlier, age 4, stage.
Children who absorbed superhero messages were more aggressive, but they were neither more prosocial nor were they more likely to defend other kids who were being picked on by others.
The young participants responded in different ways to superheroes, including 26 percent who referred to merchandise, 20 percent to the superhero image and 21 percent to characteristics.
"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," the study said. "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.'”
In her practice, it's not uncommon for little boys who aspire to be Spider-Man to "literally climb the walls," said Fran Walfish, author of "The Self-Aware Parent" who is a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills. She was not involved in the superhero research. "That's what these boys do at home and in my office. What it does is stimulate the natural aggressive impulses that are already there."
She said that all humans have such impulses and it's a parent's job at the toddler stage to socialize kids and teach them to use appropriate skills instead, such as speech and language.
"Toddlers have not yet mastered inhibiting their impulses. They are still learning how to be in control of their bodies with toilet training and learning delayed gratification — wait your turn, wait for Mommy," she said. "Those are the types of things that trigger a temper tantrum. They don't yet have enough practice controlling themselves."
Many parents unwittingly reinforce the aggressive side of superheroes by allowing things like jumping off furniture.
"Older children who already understand red-light, green-light impulse control are much better able to absorb the more nuanced messages of altruism and aggression," Walfish said.
This study is not the first time Coyne and colleagues have looked at the impact of popular culture and media messaging on youngsters. Coyne's 2016 research found little girls exposed to Disney princess culture were more likely to limit themselves because of stereotypes.
In relation to both studies, Coyne suggested kids engage with people, activities and media in diverse ways so no one thing dominates. “Again, I’d say to have moderation,” Coyne noted, playing superheroes amid other interests.
She also recommends parents talk to their children about messages that media present and how kids can interpret the things they see.
Coauthors on the study are BYU professors Laura Stockdale and David Nelson, along with BYU graduate students Kevin Collier and Lee Essig, and Jennifer Linder from Linfield College.