BATH, United Kingdom — As children make out their holiday wish lists, many are probably picking items and heroes from their favorite cartoons. While these shows are memorable and extremely popular around the world, a new study argues some are also sending kids the wrong messages about pain. A team of psychologists say popular kids’ cartoons like “Peppa Pig,” “Toy Story,” and “Frozen” are too violent and give children an unrealistic view of pain.
The study finds animated films such as “Despicable Me,” “Finding Dory,” and “The Incredibles” plus TV shows like “Octonauts” often feature characters that do not show empathy when someone is injured. Researchers add this focus on more extreme and violent injuries without compassion teaches children the wrong lessons about pain.
Pop culture features a lot of pain
Young viewers engrossed in the hugely influential programs see nearly nine incidents of violence or pain an hour. These scenes only arise through acts of roughness or injury. Almost half the time, the international team finds onlookers express a lack of sympathy.
The results include studies of six children’s TV series and ten family movies which are marketed for four to six-year-olds. British and Canadian psychologists described their findings as “shocking.”
“How children experience, model, understand and manage pain has real lasting consequences for them as individuals but also for all of us across wider society,” study co-author Dr. Abbie Jordan from the University of Bath says in a release.
“Pain, in particular chronic pain, can have hugely debilitating effects on the lives of children and young people right through into adulthood. Part of the challenge in this is how we talk about pain.”
The team identified 454 painful incidents over 52 hours of television, an average of 8.66 incidents of pain per hour. Violent pain or injury ranked as the most common type trauma spotted by psychologists, occurring 79 percent of the time. Everyday mishaps like falling over and bumping a knee make up only 20 percent of pain-related scenarios.
A ‘shocking’ lack of empathy in cartoons?
When analyzing facial expressions, male characters are much more prone to suffer severe pain in a cartoon and there is a general lack of empathy from bystanders. Other characters in the cartoon witnessed these events three-quarters of the time. Those characters did did not respond in 41 percent of cases.
“We know children spend increasing amounts of time watching these influential programs and films and that what they depict feeds through to their understanding and awareness of an issue,” Dr. Jordan adds.
“When it comes to pain, as we see from this study, the picture presented by these media is not reflective of children’s common experiences, instead focusing much more on extreme and violent pain. Our assessment is that these programs could do much more to help children understand pain by modelling it in different ways and crucially by showing more empathy when characters experience pain. That’s important for how children interact with others when one of them experiences pain, such as when a friend might fall over in the playground or when they go to the doctors for routine vaccinations.”
Which shows are delivering a painful message?
Specifically, researchers focused on popular cartoons which have come out over the last decade or so. The films include “Despicable Me 2,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Toy Story 3” and “Toy Story 4,” “Incredibles 2,” “Inside Out,” “Up,” “Zootopia,” “Frozen” and “Finding Dory.”
The television cartoons examined include “Sofia the First,” “Shimmer and Shine,” “Paw Patrol,” “Octonauts,” “Peppa Pig,” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
“We examined shows and movies millions of young children in North America and beyond are watching. The findings were, frankly, shocking,” lead researcher Professor Melanie Noel from the University of Calgary explains.
“It is undoubtable that the media is a powerful force in how children learn about the world. The way pain is unrealistically portrayed is teaching young children that pain is not worthy of help or empathy from others, and that it will be experienced and responded to differently if you are a boy or a girl. We have a responsibility to change these societal narratives about pain.”
The findings are published in the international journal Pain.
SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.