Fascination with Superheroes May Lead to Aggression in Children


Fascination with Superheroes May Lead to Aggression in ChildrenSuperheroes 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

About Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2017). Fascination with Superheroes May Lead to Aggression in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 13, 2017, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2017/01/12/fascination-with-superheroes-may-lead-to-aggression-in-children/115028.html



Napkin drawing with cycle diagram reading: "The Same Old Thinking" and "The Same Old Results"

The Problem With Positive Thinking

Are we fooling ourselves?

I had a nice conversation on a plane the other day with a woman who told me that she learned about the importance of positive thinking from reading self-help books.

When I asked if she found this advice useful, she said, “not really.” We both laughed, but I think this is true for a lot of people. And yet, we keep hearing about the power of positive thinking. Why?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that negative beliefs about the self, the world, and the future can lead to anger, anxiety, and depression. And to feel better, it seems reasonable to turn to “optimistic” or “positive” thinking.

But this strategy can backfire if our new ideas aren’t believable, realistic, or confirmed by our experiences.

When positive thinking goes wrong

Have you ever tried to convince yourself that you’d ace the job interview and get hired immediately?

That you’d stand up in front of an audience and deliver a perfect presentation?

That you’d start up a conversation with a stranger who would see your greatness and be thrilled to chat with you?

That you’d be able to stick to your diet because this time you’re truly motivated?

Sometimes beliefs like these are supported by the data—pleasant reactions from other people, consistently healthy behavior, and other successful outcomes.

But sometimes we experience disappointing outcomes that don’t match our predictions. If we try to guide ourselves through life with positive thoughts, what happens when things don’t work out so well?

When beliefs and experiences don’t match, we become confused, frustrated, and disappointed. This is why positive thinking is so limited. It often seems forced or inauthentic and it only works when we have the experiences we desire.

What’s the alternative?

A better bet is to practice replacing negative beliefs with ideas that are more accurate and useful.

For example, when you catch yourself thinking in unreasonable ways, begin to assess accuracy. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the evidence to support this belief?
  • Is there any evidence to reject it?
  • Is there a more accurate way to think about this situation?

Next, consider the usefulness of the belief and whether it would benefit you to change it. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the likely effect of thinking this way?
  • How does it affect my emotions? My behavior?
  • What would happen if I changed my belief?

Using exercises like these to move toward more accurate and useful beliefs can have a huge impact on the intensity of unpleasant emotions.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Center for Clinical and Applied Sport Psychology.