Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 45, Issue 8, pp 1523–1535 | Cite as

Pow! Boom! Kablam! Effects of Viewing Superhero Programs on Aggressive, Prosocial, and Defending Behaviors in Preschool Children

  • Sarah M. CoyneEmail author
  • Laura Stockdale
  • Jennifer Ruh Linder
  • David A. Nelson
  • Kevin M. Collier
  • Lee W. Essig


Many schools and parents try to motivate children to become defenders of victimized peers. Defending behavior is common in the media (particularly in superhero programs); however, no study has examined the effect of media on defending behavior. The aim of the study was to examine longitudinal associations between superhero engagement and a variety of aggressive, prosocial, and defending behaviors in preschool children. Participants consisted of 240 preschoolers (49% male) and their parents who reported on child media use and outcomes at 2 different time points. Preschooler’s engagement with superheroes was related to increased physical and relational aggression 1 year later. Engagement with superheroes was not related to prosocial or defending behaviors. Implications of the results are discussed.


Media Superheroes Physical aggression Relational aggression Prosocial behavior Defending behaviors Bullying 



We would like to acknowledge the Women’s Research Initiative at BYU for financially supporting this project. We would also like to thank all the student research assistants for their help throughout the project.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Achenbach, T. M., McConaughy, S. H., & Howell, C. T. (1987). Child/adolescent behavioral and emotional problems: implications of cross-informant correlations of situational specificity. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 213–232.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27–51. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173. doi: 10.1037/a0018251.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Baker, K., & Raney, A. A. (2007). Equally super?: gender-role stereotyping of superheroes in children’s animated programs. Mass Communication & Society, 10, 25–41. doi: 10.1080/15205430709337003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of moral thought and action. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (pp. 45–103). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Barchia, K., & Bussey, K. (2011). Predictors of student defenders of peer aggression victims: empathy and social cognitive factors. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 35, 289–297. doi: 10.1177/0165025410396746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brockmyer, J. F. (2013). Media violence, desensitization, and psychological engagement. In K. E. Dill (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of media psychology (pp. 212–222). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Brown, L. M., Lamb, S., & Tappan, M. (2009). Packaging boyhood: saving our sons from superheroes, slackers, and other media stereotypes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Buckley, K. E., & Anderson, C. A. (2006). A theoretical model of the effects and consequences of playing video games. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Playing video games: motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 363–378). Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  10. Busching, R., Gentile, D. A., Krahé, B., Möller, I., Khoo, A., Walsh, D. A., & Anderson, C. A. (2013). Testing the reliability and validity of different measures of violent video game use in the United States, Singapore, and Germany. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 97–111. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477–489. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.6-7.477.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2009). Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20, 273–277. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02287.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Pediatrics, 160, 348–352. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.160.4.348.Google Scholar
  14. Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 106, 676–713. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.106.4.676.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Camodeca, M., & Coppola, G. (2015). Bullying, empathic concern, and internalization of rules among preschool children: the role of emotion understanding. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 10, 5–17. doi: 10.1177/0165025415607086.Google Scholar
  16. Cantor, J., & Wilson, B. J. (2003). Media and violence: intervention strategies for reducing aggression. Media Psychology, 5, 363–403. doi: 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0504_03.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Caravita, S. C. S., Blasio, P. D., & Salmivalli, C. (2010). Early adolescents’ participation in bullying: is ToM involved? The Journal of Early Adolescence, 30, 138–170. doi: 10.1177/0272431609342983.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Caravita, S. C. S., Gini, G., & Pozzoli, T. (2012). Main and moderated effects of moral cognition and status on bullying and defending. Aggressive Behavior, 38, 456–468. doi: 10.1002/ab.21447.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Carlson, S. M., & Wang, T. S. (2007). Inhibitory control and emotion regulation in preschool children. Cognitive Development, 22, 489–510. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2007.08.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Coyne, S. M. (2016). Effects of viewing relational aggression on television on aggressive behavior in adolescents: a three-year longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 52, 284–295. doi: 10.1037/dev0000068.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Coyne, S. M., Nelson, D. A., Lawton, F., Haslam, S., Rooney, L., Titterington, L., et al. (2008). The effects of viewing physical and relational aggression in the media: evidence for a cross-over effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1551–1554. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.06.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Collier, K. M. (2014). It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a gender stereotype!: longitudinal associations between superhero viewing and gender stereotype play. Sex Roles, 70, 416–430. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0374-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Coyne, S. M., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Holmgren, H. G., Collier, K. M., Davis, E. J., Memmott-Elison, M. K. (2016). A meta-analysis of prosocial media on prosocial behavior, aggression, and empathic concern: a multidimensional approach. Under Review. Google Scholar
  24. Crick, N. R., Casas, J. F., & Mosher, M. (1997). Relational and overt aggression in preschool. Developmental Psychology, 33, 579–588. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.33.4.579.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Crick, N. R., Casas, J. F., & Ku, H. (1999). Relational and physical forms of peer victimization in preschool. Developmental Psychology, 35, 376–385. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.35.2.376.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Fraser, A. M., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Coyne, S. M., Nelson, L. J., & Stockdale, L. A. (2012). Associations between violent video gaming, empathic concern, and prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family members. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 636–649. doi: 10.1007/s10964-012-9742-2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T., & Baumgardner, J. (2004). Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization? Journal of Adolescence, 27, 23–39. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2003.10.005.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Gerde, V. W., & Foster, R. S. (2008). X-men ethics: using comic books to teach business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 77, 245–258. doi: 10.1007/s10551-006-9347-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Goodman, R., & Scott, S. (1999). Comparing the strengths and difficulties questionnaire and the child behavior checklist: is small beautiful? Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27, 17–24.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Greitemeyer, T. (2011). Effects of prosocial media on social behavior: when and why does media exposure affect helping and aggression? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 251–255. doi: 10.1177/0963721411415229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201–221.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Huitsing, G., Snijders, T. A. B., Van Duijn, M. A. J., & Veenstra, R. (2014). Victims, bullies, and their defenders: a longitudinal study of the coevolution of positive and negative networks. Development and Psychopathology, 26, 645–659. doi: 10.1017/S0954579414000297.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Johansson, J., & Hannula, M. S. (2012). Third graders’ perceptions on moral behaviour on bullying if they had the infinite powers of superhero defenders. Education Research International, 2012, 1–15. doi: 10.1155/2012/258181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kärnä, A., Voeten, M., Poskiparta, E., & Salmivalli, C. (2010). Vulnerable children in varying classroom contexts: bystanders’ behaviors moderate the effects of risk factors on victimization. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 56, 261–282. doi: 10.1353/mpq.0.0052.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Konijn, E. A., NijeBijvank, M., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). I wish I were a warrior: the role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1038–1044. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.4.1038.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Krcmar, M., & Cooke, M. C. (2001). Children’s moral reasoning and their perceptions of television violence. Journal of Communication, 51, 300–316. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2001.tb02882.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kristensen, S. M., & Smith, P. K. (2003). The use of coping strategies by Danish children classed as bullies, victims, bully/victims, and not involved, in response to different (hypothetical) types of bullying. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 44, 479–488.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. List of American Superhero Films. (2014). In Wikipedia. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
  39. Lofland, J., Snow, D., Anderson, L., & Lofland, L. H. (2006). Analyzing social settings: a guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Toronto: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  40. Luther, C. A., & Legg, J. R. (2010). Gender differences in depictions of social and physical aggression in children’s television cartoons in the US. Journal of Children and Media, 4, 191–205. doi: 10.1080/17482791003629651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mares, M., & Woodard, E. (2005). Positive effects of television on children’s social interactions: a meta-analysis. Media Psychology, 7, 301–322. doi: 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0703_4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Martin, J. F. (2007). Children’s attitudes toward superheroes as a potential indicator of their moral understanding. Journal of Moral Education, 36, 239–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Monks, C. P., Smith, P. K., & Swettenham, J. (2003). Aggressors, victims, and defenders in preschool: peer, self-, and teacher reports. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 49, 453–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Monks, C. P., Palermiti, A., Ortega, R., & Costabile, A. (2011). A cross-national comparison of aggressors, victims and defenders in preschools in England, Spain, and Italy. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 14, 133–144. doi: 10.5209/rev_SJOP.2011.v14.n1.11.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Morrison, G. (2011). Supergods: our world in the age of the superhero. London: Random House.Google Scholar
  46. Nickerson, A. B., & Mele-Taylor, D. (2014). Empathetic responsiveness, group norms, and prosocial affiliations in bullying roles. School Psychology Quarterly, 29, 99–109. doi: 10.1037/spq0000052.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Ostrov, J. M., & Keating, C. F. (2004). Gender differences in preschool aggression during free play and structured interactions: an observational study. Social Development, 13, 255–277. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2004.000266.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Ostrov, J. M., Gentile, D. A., & Crick, N. R. (2006). Media exposure, aggression, and prosocial behavior during early childhood: a longitudinal study. Social Development, 15, 612–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Powell, M. B., Skouteris, H., & Murfett, R. (2008). Children’s perceptions of the role of police: a qualitative study. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 10, 464–473. doi: 10.1350/ijps.2008.10.4.099.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pöyhönen, V., Juvonen, J., & Salmivalli, C. (2012). Standing up for the victim, siding with the bully or standing by? Bystander responses in bullying situations. Social Development, 21, 722–741. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2012.00662.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Pozzoli, T., & Gini, G. (2010). Active defending and passive bystanding behavior in bullying: the role of personal characteristics and perceived peer pressure. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38, 815–827. doi: 10.1007/s10802-010-9399-9.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Pozzoli, T., Gini, G., & Vieno, A. (2012). The role of individual correlates and class norms in defending and passive bystanding behavior in bullying: a multilevel analysis. Child Development, 83, 1917–1931. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01831.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Pronk, J., Goossens, F. A., Olthof, T., de Mey, L., & Willemen, A. M. (2013). Children’s intervention strategies in situations of victimization by bullying: social cognitions of outsiders versus defenders. Journal of School Psychology, 51, 669–682. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2013.09.002.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Prot, S., Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., Suzuki, K., Swing, E., Lim, K. M., & Lam, B. C. P. (2013). Long-term relations among prosocial media use, empathy, and prosocial behavior. Psychological Science, 25, 358–368. doi: 10.1177/0956797613503854.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Rosenkoetter, L. I., Rosenkoetter, S. E., & Acock, A. C. (2009). Television violence: an intervention to reduce its impact on children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 381–397. doi: 10.1016/j.appdev.2008.12.019.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rubinstein, S. L. (2004). Understanding adolescent participation in harassment: a social cognitive approach (Doctoral dissertation, Queen’s University, Canada). Retrieved from
  57. Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 1–15. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2337(1996)22:1<1::AID-AB1>3.0.CO;2-T.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Salmivalli, C., Voeten, M., & Poskiparta, E. (2011). Bystanders matter: associations between reinforcing, defending, and the frequency of bullying behavior in classrooms. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 40, 668–676. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2011.597090.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Sharon, T., & Woolley, J. D. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 293–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sijtsema, J. J., Rambaran, J. A., Caravita, S. C. S., & Gini, G. (2014). Friendship selection and influence in bullying and defending: effects of moral disengagement. Developmental Psychology, 50, 2093–2104. doi: 10.1037/a0037145.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Thornberg, R., & Jungert, T. (2013). Bystander behavior in bullying situations: basic moral sensitivity, moral disengagement and defender self-efficacy. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 475–483. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.02.003.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. van Noorden, T. H. J., Haselager, G. J. T., Cillessen, A. H. N., & Bukowski, W. M. (2014). Empathy and involvement in bullying in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44, 637–657. doi: 10.1007/s10964-014-0135-6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Worldwide Grosses (2015). Retrieved from Accessed 10 June 2015.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah M. Coyne
    • 1
    Email author
  • Laura Stockdale
    • 1
  • Jennifer Ruh Linder
    • 2
  • David A. Nelson
    • 1
  • Kevin M. Collier
    • 3
  • Lee W. Essig
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Family LifeBrigham Young UniversityProvoUSA
  2. 2.Linfield CollegeMcMinvilleUSA
  3. 3.The Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

Personalised recommendations