Skip to main content

Children Emulate Superheroes’ Aggression

Your preschooler may be picking up bad behaviors from Batman.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Superheroes dominate American pop culture at the moment, which would seem to be a good thing. Superman, Wonder Woman, and most of their peers use their abilities to fight injustice and help those in need. One would think their young fans would learn to emulate their admirable behaviors.

Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

That’s the conclusion of a just-published study in which 240 preschoolers were evaluated at two points in time, spaced one year apart. It found their engagement with superheroes at the first point was not related to any sort of “pro-social or defending behavior” at the second.

But the kids did imitate their heroes in a different, less desirable way. The researchers found a link between identification with such characters and increased aggression over time.

“Children in early childhood may be particularly at risk for the negative effects of media violence exposure when the superhero medium is emphasized,” concludes a research team led by psychologist Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University. “It appears to be difficult for young children to disentangle aggression and pro-social behavior when they are combined, as is common in the superhero genre.”

The study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, featured kindergartners and preschoolers recruited at four sites in the Western United States. Both at the initial session and again one year later parents reported their child’s favorite superhero, how strongly they identify with him or her, and how often they view movies or television shows featuring such characters.

They also filled out questionnaires regarding their child’s behavior, including whether they are kind and helpful to their friends; whether they defend peers who are being bullied; and whether they engage in three types of aggression: physical (kicking or hitting others), relational (ignoring peers or otherwise hurting their feelings), or verbal (calling them names).

In addition, the children were interviewed separately during each session. They were asked to identify their favorite superhero, and to explain why they liked him or her best.

The key finding: “Preschoolers who were highly engaged with superheroes were more likely to be physically and relationally aggressive one year later, even after controlling for initial levels of physical and relational aggression, and their exposure to other aggressive media,” the researchers report.

This result is consistent with previous research “which has repeatedly shown that exposure to aggressive and violent media can result in increased aggressive behavior,” they write.

But why would exposure to superheroes increase aggression above and beyond exposure to other types of problematic media? Coyne and her colleagues suspect at least part of the answer is the fact many parents “endorse and support” their kids’ love of the violent characters.

Approving parents apparently think the kids are picking up on the altruistic motivations of the superheroes, when, in fact, the only thing that registers strongly is the characters’ aggressive behavior. “Engagement with superhero characters was not related to preschoolers’ general pro-social behavior, or defending (others),” the researchers write.

This makes sense when you think about it. After all, “the aggression seen in superhero media is very salient, repeated, rewarded, justified, glamorized, and instantaneous,” the researchers note. In contrast, the characters’ positive motivations are “more subtle, delayed between cause and effect, less glamorized, and intertwined with aggressive behaviors.”

As a result, “in the long-term, children are more likely to enact the aggression than the pro-social and defending behaviors,” Coyne and her colleagues conclude.

So when it comes to superhero stories, as with so many types of media, parents have a responsibility to not just plunk their kids down in front of the TV or computer, but to engage with them regarding the content of the program, and what they are getting out of it.

If they clearly enjoy watching Batman punch out a bad guy, it’s important that parents discuss why he did so — and how one can be a hero in real life without raising a fist.