The Dark Side of Superheroes
A new study has found that counting on superheroes as role models for preschoolers might backfire.
The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, interviewed preschool-aged children and their parents to determine how often the children watched superhero media and how much and in what way they identified with various superheroes. Most missed the ‘good’ moral messages and many only picked up on the aggressive behaviour of the hero.
Only 10% of children who identified with superhero characteristics spoke of positive, defending traits; twice as many noted aggressive behaviour like, “He’s big and can punch,” or “Because he can smash and destroy everything, and he doesn’t care because he’s a big bully.” (Most children identified with neither the moral message nor aggressive behaviour, instead appreciating characteristics like strength and flying).
The findings fly in the face of popular belief that superheroes are the exception to the negative effects of violent media on children. Since psychologist Albert Bandura began studying how children learn through imitation in the 70s, that belief had governed professional recommendations and individual household rules around children’s media consumption.
The superhero exception gained support in the late 90s, with research by Judy H. McCrary suggesting superheroes as role models that can influence children’s morality. Violent depictions are bad for kids. But superheroes are good for kids.
Superheroes make their appearance in times of trouble, both in their world and in ours. Superman, the original superhero, first published in comic form at the end of the 1930s, after nearly a decade of economic desperation in the US; Batman emerged from his Bat Cave soon after.
Little surprise that the current era of Hollywood blockbusters kicked off with 2002’s Spiderman, a year after the 9/11 attacks in the US forever changed geopolitics. Superheroes provided a glimpse of stability and protection to an increasingly uncertain world. What’s more – they made us believe we could find it in ourselves.
“What makes superheroes so compelling is the idea that we are on the same continuum as they are,” wrote Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg in a 2010 article for Psychology Today. “They’re like us, but with something extra. We ponder what it would be like to be them.”
But if the world changed in 2001, as many feel it did, the superheroes quickly changed with it.
“I wanted to try to do it in a more realistic fashion than anyone had ever tried to a superhero film before… Without getting too mawkish about it, we live in a frightening world now, and 10 years ago we didn’t,” said Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan in a 2005 interview with The Guardian. “Superman is essentially a god, but Batman is more like Hercules: he’s a human being, very flawed, and bridges the divide.”
His hit ushered in a decade and more of superhero media heralded for their grit and realism. Between the Marvel and DC universes, superheroes’ flaws became more pronounced as their film revenues grew: last year, five of the top 10 highest grossing movies were superhero movies.
The world flocked to see super(anti)heroes strut across larger-than-life screens. We handed over ticket money and put no restrictions on our kids.
Which is the exact problem, says Lee Essig-Thunell, a graduate research assistant at Brigham Young University in the US and one of the study’s authors. Lee said while the study wasn’t limited to a specific type of media, he believed most exposure came from cartoons — yet, “even these cartoons are rarely intended for preschoolers, with most being given a rating for 7 years and up, in the United States.”
Even so, it is not typically until adolescence that children develop the cognitive ability to consider the effects of aggression on others in the abstract. While kids can understand before this age that some actions are justified and some are not, it takes effort from parents to instil that message.
“The verbal moral message that a show might convey is both brief and disengaged,” Essig-Thunell said. “Children do learn through modeling. In superhero media, children see a lot of aggressive media, and frankly, it’s very stimulating for the child, both in the colors, sounds, and behaviors of the cartoons.”
Essig-Thunell says superheroes as role models for preschoolers only work if parents converse with their child and ask: “Why is that superhero a good guy? What makes them a good person? Why do they get violent sometimes? Is the violence justified? What can we learn from their example — both for better or worse? How might we solve conflicts? … As these conversations continually happen, children are more likely to begin noticing the more intricate details of superheroes and their behaviors then they would on their own.”
That is perhaps the fascination and flaw of superheroes – not that they solve unsolveable conflicts, but that they solve them in a way we at once deprecate and admire. We might wish to punch someone in the face – BAM! – but we don’t, and we teach our children not to. Superheroes represent the best and worst of us.
“Quite honestly, I love superheroes. I was raised watching them as a child, I enjoy them as an adult, and I now get to share those superheroes with my 5-year-old son,” Essig-Thunell said. But “while we, as adults, are able to see the very clear benefits and good intentions of superheroes and superhero media, our children need our active engagement to help them differentiate between the positive and negative messages they may take away from the media.”
Essig-Thunell’s advice is based in science, but the idea comes from the heart of superhero culture, articulated most clearly by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
The extraordinariness of superheroes might actually be as ordinary as good parenting.