Bring that playground superhero down to earth

05 February 2017 - 02:00 By SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER

Comic-book heroes fight for right but their young imitators can get it wrong

Levi Naiker, 4, jumped off a jungle gym this week while playing superheroes and cut his chin open.
Levi Naiker, 4, jumped off a jungle gym this week while playing superheroes and cut his chin open.
Image: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Levi Naiker believes he can do the impossible - fly like the superheroes he adores.

The four-year-old tried to leap off a jungle gym but instead of soaring like Superman he ended up in a hospital emergency ward where he received four stitches on his chin this week.

The Durban preschooler is among thousands of South African kids who hero-worship characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and Iron Man - an obsession that a US university warns could be harmful and result in children being physically aggressive and changing how they relate to other children.

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Local child experts largely agree with the findings of researchers at Brigham Young University, who surveyed more than 240 preschoolers in a study on superhero culture among children.

Some psychologists say they are treating little superhero fans for behavioural problems that have occurred because of their obsession with fictional heroes.

Researchers at Brigham - which is associated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, which recommends exposure to "wholesome media" only - found that while "there is a lot of good that kids can take away from watching their favourite superheroes", such benefits were not obvious with children in the study.

The children and their parents were not affiliated to the church because the researchers wanted their findings - published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology - to reflect a general view on superheroes.

"So many preschoolers are into superheroes and so many parents think the superhero culture will help their kids defend others and be nice to their peers. But our study shows the exact opposite. Kids pick up on the aggressive themes and not the defending ones," said head researcher Professor Sarah Coyne.

Of the children surveyed, 20% associated their favourite superhero with violent skills. Some said "he's big and can punch" and "he smashes and gets angry", while others suggested blatant aggression: "Because he can smash and destroy everything and he doesn't care because he's a big bully."

One child said Captain America was his favourite because "he can kill".

Lee Essig, a researcher on the study, told the Sunday Times that, based on the frequency of responses in terms of admiration of superheroes' violent attributes, "we found that children were more likely to pick up on the aggressive attributes ... than the positive ones".

But South African parents don't mind their little ones worshipping their heroes - under their watchful eyes.

Levi - who owns eight superhero outfits and loads of figurines - is encouraged by his parents, Tamzen and Yugeshin Naiker, to be imaginative and play to his heart's content. Tamzen said: "He loves the idea of doing the impossible and fighting the bad guys. But he is not aggressive at all. Levi seems to be very daring ... this week was very scary for us because we had to rush him to hospital after his bad fall."

She believes that, with guidance, "we as parents should allow them to be whoever they want to be ... for my boy that's being a superhero".

However, Kavita Haripersad, the principal of Montessori at Umhlanga Pre-Primary, said: "Our superheroes are the departure of truth from the reality. Children easily escape into a fantasy world and act out different scenarios with no understanding of the consequences as they now understand violence and aggression are acceptable.

"Watching young children in a playground all dressed in the latest Spider-Man gear will quickly remind you how easily they perpetrate violent acts on each other. The willingness to hurt each other is justified."

The rationalisation of violent behaviour is what Johannesburg clinical psychologist Cristine Scolari sees in her practice as children display problem behaviour related to superhero adoration.

"Children may adopt and admire the traits of fictional heroes because they perceive them as having special powers. For example, if a child is scared of baddies in real life, they will adopt traits of fictional heroes saying: 'I'm not scared of baddies, I will kick them.' It can make preschoolers feel stronger ... and is a defence mechanism."

Scolari said she had seen a number of "behaviour difficulties" among her little patients who worshipped fictional characters. "Such a child is denying or not processing his feelings of insecurity/inadequacy by acting like a superhero."

Psychologist Illeana Cocotos said young children emulated aggressive behaviour because "they don't understand that complexity of the plot as well as the moral reasoning behind the character's behaviour. They are likely to pick up on the violence. "

But for Andaleeb Khan, mother of Wonder Woman fan Sanaa Kazi, 4, if "superheroes espouse good values and encourage children to perform good deeds ... I have no issues with children looking up to them. Sanaa is thrilled that girls can be superheroes too."

govendersu@sundaytimes.co.za