(Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Uncle Ben to Peter Parker, the Spiderman. This famous quote illustrates a common narrative among superhero comics and shows — that godly strength needs to be put in the service of those that are weaker for the greater good. Keeping this in mind, there’s a lot of good things that children can learn from superheroes; things that build character and that can stay with them well into adulthood. That’s not to say that there aren’t some bad things kids can pick up. In fact, professor Sarah M. Coyne from Brigham Young University claims pre-schoolers are more influenced by aggressive superhero behaviour than defending themes.

““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.”

Coyne is famous for authoring a trending paper last year which found Disney Princess culture can make preschoolers susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes. While these stereotypical behaviors aren’t bad in and of themselves,  past research has shown that they can be limiting in the long term for young women. Her new study, this time on superhero culture, seems to echo the Disney Princess findings. That’s not to say, however, that parents should keep their kids away from superhero or Disney material — far from it.

Credit: Giphy

“Again, I’d say to have moderation,” Coyne said in a statement. “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.”

The observational study consisted of 240 children. First. the preschoolers’ parents were interviewed about the level of engagement their children had with superhero culture. Questions included also those that gauged aggressiveness. For instance, the parents were asked to rate how frequently children engaged in aggressive behaviour, in its various forms (physical, relational or verbal).

The kids themselves were interviewed. They were asked to identify 10 popular superheroes, if they could, and name their favorite one. They also had to explain why they chose the said superheroes out of all the others.

“Various responses included superhero merchandise (26%), image (20%) and interpersonal characteristics (21%). Given the focus of the current study, we used a subcode to examine any defending or violent themes. Of those who specified characteristics in superheroes, 10% 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% of skills-related comments by children were benign in nature: “Because he is big and strong” and “Because he is cool and can fly,” the researchers reported in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Coyne and colleagues explain that some children may latch on to aggression rather than prosocial behavior because that’s what’s easier for them to relate to. Superhero media can have a complex storyline and the superhero motives and characters are not always evident. Often violence and prosocial behavior are interwoven, a staple that makes this culture enjoyable for many in the first place. Preschoolers, however, generally lack the cognitive ability but also the experience to understand a wider moral message.

Credit: Giphy

Citing previous studies, Coyne also asserts that violent media can reduce cognitive and emotional responses, possibly making some children less empathic such as in situations when violence is present on the playground.

Coyne reiterates that balance is key. It’s nearly impossible to escape superhero culture in America, as Coyne knows very well being the mother of three young boys.

“I currently have a three-year-old son who likes Spiderman even though he has never seen the movies. He dresses up as Spiderman occasionally and will go around pretending to shoot webs. The point of the study is not to ban superheroes as they can be a fun and magical part of childhood. However, the superhero culture can become consuming, especially if kids are watching the movies, playing with the toys, strongly identifying with the characters, dressing up, etc. This study is all about balance. For example, my son is almost equally as likely to pretend he is Elsa and belt out the lyrics to ‘Let it Go. It’s about finding balance and ways to talk about superheroes that focus on the positive aspects,” she said.

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