Exposure to Superheroes Linked to Aggression in Children

Kid sitting in superhero costumePreschool-age children who frequently engage with superhero culture—by watching superhero movies or dressing like superheroes—may be more likely to behave aggressively, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

In movies and comics, superheroes are often defenders of the underdog. Parents may turn to superhero culture to encourage children to stand up to bullies. According to the study, this choice may be misguided. Findings showed children who invested in superhero culture were not more likely than their peers to stand up for bullied children, but they were more likely to act aggressively in general.

Does Superhero Culture Make Children Aggressive?

Researchers interviewed 240 preschoolers and their parents. Forty-nine percent of the participating children were male, and 51% were female.

Parents answered questions about their children’s engagement with superhero culture, including how frequently they watched superhero shows and whether they identified with superheroes. Parents also provided data about their children’s behavior. Interviewers asked the children to identify 10 superheroes. The children also identified their favorite superhero and explained why they chose that character.

Children were more likely to list superhero merchandise (26%) than interpersonal characteristics (20%) as justification for liking a particular superhero. Ten percent of children who pointed to a superhero’s characteristics highlighted their defending skills, and 20% specifically listed superhero violence. Seventy percent listed non-violent characteristics, such as a superhero’s strength or skills.

A year after the initial analysis of a child’s identification with superhero culture, researchers assessed children’s aggression based on parental reports. Children who identified with superheroes were more likely to be relationally and physically aggressive. Compared to peers who were less invested in superheroes, the children did not show more prosocial behavior such as defending children against bullies.

Understanding the Effects of Superhero Culture

The study did not directly assess why children who like superheroes tend to exhibit more aggressive behavior, and did not establish a clear causal connection. However, its authors hypothesize that the complexity of superhero narratives might partially explain the violence. Superhero stories are often complex, but preschoolers may not understand the complexities behind the violence or aggression they witness. As a result, they may latch onto violence as the dominant theme of superhero narratives.

The study’s authors do not recommend forbidding access to superheroes. They suggest instead that parents adopt a moderate approach, finding ways to focus on more positive aspects of superhero culture and encouraging children to develop a wide range of interests.


  1. Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Linder, J. R., Nelson, D. A., Collier, K. M., & Essig, L. W. (2017). Pow! Boom! Kablam! Effects of viewing superhero programs on aggressive, prosocial, and defending behaviors in preschool children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. doi:10.1007/s10802-016-0253-6
  2. Superhero culture magnifies aggressive, not defending behaviors. (2017, January 11). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170111131122.htm

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Paula

    January 17th, 2017 at 11:54 AM

    What? No please don’t say that. MY son is obsessed with BatMan and I don’t want it to make him that typical aggressive boy

  • Rory

    January 20th, 2017 at 1:30 PM

    I don’t think that it is always just the exposure to this that will cause the aggression. I think that there have to be other factors in the home that could possibly be encouraging this behavior in children too. Look at how the parents react when the child does something that is aggressive. Do they get in trouble and receive negative attention or do they get the laughs and the encouragement to keep them coming back for more?
    Sometimes we have to look at what our own actions are too and the things that we could be doing to increase this kind of behavior.

  • Laurence

    January 23rd, 2017 at 8:52 AM

    likely the movies and studios don’t care because these are real money makers for them

  • Cecile R

    January 23rd, 2017 at 2:28 PM

    I am willing to buy into the fact that left unchecked this kind of constant exposure could cause a child who is predisposed to being aggressive to possibly showing out more than others.

    On the other hand I do believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to expose your children to these figures and to many children especially those fighting off childhood diseases they can be excellent motivation for fighting and getting well.

    I understand that there are two sides to every coin but I don’t think that you can rule out how positive they can actually be for some children.

    I guess you just have to know your child and know which qualities of the super hero are most going to appeal to them and which they are most likely to imitate.

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