Sunday, June 4, 2017

Is Superhero Media Making Kids More Aggressive?

Brigham Young University researchers recently studied children weaned on a steady diet of Batman, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk - and all that exposure to superhero media may be influencing kids to act anything but heroic around their peers.
BAD ROLE MODELS? The results of a recent Brigham Young University study suggests prekindergarten children exposed to a heavy dose of superhero media may be more likely to engage in aggressive - and decisively unheroic - behavior with their peers. (Photo Credit James Swift)

By: James Swift

Another summer ushers in another tidal wave of comic-book based blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming at multiplexes across America. This, after a deluge of similar superhero fare like The Lego Batman Movie, Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 cleaned up at the box office earlier this year.

The superhero trend is no doubt a lucrative one for Hollywood, with 2016 genre films accounting for 16 percent of all domestic movie ticket sales. And that's just the tip of the iceberg - in 2013, merchandising sales for just one Marvel brand, Spider-Man, generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue

A stroll down the toy aisle of any big box store in America demonstrates the pervasive reach of superhero branding on young consumers. The action figure aisles are glutted with plastic facsimiles of The Avengers and The Justice League; such licensed products are now estimated to represent almost half of the nearly $20 billion a year toy industry's sales.

Throw in the cavalcade of cartoons, DVDs, video games and websites and the pull of today's superhero-entertainment-complex is all but unavoidable for grade-school America. Which, naturally, begs a most interesting question: what exactly are kids learning from the constant barrage of Superman and X-Men multimedia?

"Superheroes are a very common part of children's media consumption, and parents seemed to believe that these superheroes were good role models for their children," said Lee Essig-Thunell, a Brigham Young University graduate researcher. "We wanted to see which aspects of superhero media children were noticing."

The study, titled Pow! Boom! Kablam! Effects of Viewing Superhero Programs on Aggressive, Prosocial and Defending Behaviors in Preschool Children, was published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology earlier this year. It was rooted in the work of lead researcher Dr. Sarah Coyne, whose previous studies examined, among other things, the effect of Disney princess gender stereotypes on young viewers.

The data (which was part of a larger, longitudinal study on children and the media) was collected from the parents of about 200 prekindergarten children, ages 3 to 5, across four locations in the Western U.S. and the Pacific Northwest. Survey-takers were asked how often their children watched television shows, movies and DVDs depicting superhero characters and to describe the "defending behaviors" of their sons and daughters. 

Those behaviors were divided into non-aggressive and aggressive subcategories. "Your child assertively, but not aggressively, defends those who are being physically bullied by other classmates," Essig-Thunell described the former. He said the latter entailed utilized aggression - "for example, he/she will not hesitate to push or hit the bully to put an end to the bullying." 

The results of the study, however, indicates children keen on superhero media may not be as likely to display the more noble types of defending behaviors. In fact, Essig-Thunell's research suggests young children who watch more superhero media are likelier to engage in physically or relationally aggressive behavior than their peers - or, to put it another way, young superhero fanatics appear to be more prone to being bullies themselves.

Essig-Thunell said he wasn't surprised by the findings.

"Superhero programs have long been known for portraying high levels of violence, which have been associated with subsequent aggressive attitudes and behaviors," he said. "However, because superheroes are aggressive often for good reasons, such as saving people, we also wondered what prosocial messages children may pick up on. Unfortunately, many more children reported remembering and liking the violent nature of the superheroes."

Essig-Thunell said the age and mental capacity of the children may explain the outcomes. 

"Even superhero media targeted towards children is normally rated TV-Y7," he said. "Therefore, the superhero content these children are viewing was not meant for them. They are less able to mentally process the media they consume. They may be unable to pick up on the more subtle moral messages the superhero media may show, instead picking up on only the superficial things they can see without thinking about it too much." 

The children involved in the research were also interviewed about their superhero media consumption habits. When asked why they had a fondness for their favorite character, about 20 percent mentioned interpersonal characteristics. While the majority of those subjects handed out rather neutral responses such as "because he is cool," about 20 percent of them instead listed violent descriptors such as "because he can smash and destroy everything, and he doesn't care because he's a big bully."

Although children as young as 3 can grasp that violent behavior is normally considered unacceptable, Essig-Thunell notes those same kids usually realize that superhero characters are respected and revered for engaging in that very type of behavior. Yet because they haven't developed the cognitive skills necessary to meaningfully differentiate between defensive aggressive behaviors and just plain old aggressive behaviors, he said that many children miss out on the prosocial aspects of all that superhero action. 

"Young children are especially vulnerable to confusion here," he said. "Additionally, the fighting scenes are often louder, faster-paced and more colorful than the nonviolent scenes. Their senses are much more likely to remember the more lively scenes."

Essig-Thunell said the results of the study - which did not factor in superhero exposure from other forms of media, such as video games, Internet content and comic books or the "age-appropriateness" of the content consumed - reinforces the need for parents to be "active media monitors" for their children. 

"Just because it's an animated cartoon doesn't mean it's for all kids," he said. "Parents can help their children to become critical consumers of the media. Talking to their children about what their favorite shows or movies are and what they like about those can help parents learn what their children take away from those programs. They can talk to their children about superhero violence, why they are violent, how are they good, what can we learn from this and when violence is or is not acceptable in our own lives."

As for potential follow-up studies, Essig-Thunell said he would love to compare and contrast the behaviors of children based upon certain archetypical characters - for example, to demonstrate how children whose favorite hero is Batman may behave differently from a child whose favorite hero is Spider-Man. 

"I think conducting this study with different age groups, including those of middle to older childhood, adolescence and even adulthood would be fascinating," he said. "It could help us see if it really is a matter of cognitive development, or if some are more prone to picking up on aggressive behaviors." 

"The revitalization of superheroes over the last decade would make this easier to analyze," he concluded, "as superhero media is no longer limited to a childhood experience."

Uncommon Journalism, 2017.

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