Superhero movies are increasingly being made with an adult audience in mind. In turn, they’re sexier, more emotionally complex, and contain darker violence. That’s great if you’re an adult and disconcerting if you’re an adult who has to interact with preschoolers. Turns out if you’re four years old, watching Hulk smash a bunch of humanoid robots is less awesome and more developmentally damaging.
A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology makes the case that children who frequently engage with superhero culture are more likely to become aggressive physically and relationally. It turns out that kids pick up the aggressive themes of superheroes, instead of the defending “do well for your fellow man” ones. That’s a sick joke for parents who, according to a statement from the study authors, typically expose kids to superheroes to “help their kids defend others and be nicer to their peers.”
Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne, who co-authored this study, believes kids likely latch on to the more violent parts of superheroes for the exact reason it’s fun to watch them as an adult — these characters have layers of complexity to them.
“These programs contain complex storylines that interweave violence and prosocial behavior,” Coyne said in a statement, “and preschoolers do not have the cognitive capability to pick out the wider moral message that is often portrayed.”
Preschoolers don’t pick up on the nuanced and unbalanced relationship between individualism and government oversight that’s at the crux of the fight between Iron Man and Captain America. But they can tell that Captain America is very, very good at fighting.
To determine this, Coyne and her team studied 240 children. They asked their parents how engaged their kid was with superhero culture — how often they watched related content, how much they thought their kids identified with the superheroes. They then individually asked the kids who were their favorite superheroes and why they liked them best.
The honest truth is that most of the kids didn’t have a good answer — 70 percent of their replies were “benign in nature,” explanations like “I like this hero because he is cool and can fly.” Which shouldn’t be that surprising. Toddlers don’t even know how to hide, it’s a lot to expect them to really articulate their feelings.
Among the other kids, 10 percent said they liked the heroes because of their ability to defend while 20 percent of the kids liked them because of their violent skills. For example, one child said they liked the Hulk because “he smashes and gets angry” while another enjoyed Captain America “because he can kill.”
But most tellingly, when the researchers followed up with the group of children a year later, the ones who were the most engaged with superhero culture (per the parent interview) were also the most physically and relationally aggressive.
Is this another story to file away under “reasons kids are jerks,” like the fact that they don’t trust ugly people? While tempting, it speaks more to the fact that children are highly influenced by outside forces, including media. The researchers behind this study recommend that if kids do watch violent superheroes that there’s a proceeding explanation of why things happened that way.
Which — if the movies go by way of the comics — good luck to the parents who have to explain that Captain America was briefly (but also kind of wasn’t?) a Nazi.