'Peppa Pig,' 'Frozen,' 'Toy Story' and more teach kids wrong lessons about pain, study says

Elise Solé
·4 min read

Children are exposed to nearly nine examples of physical pain per hour during television shows and films, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Bath and the University of Calgary analyzed 16 of the popular children’s media including movies The Secret Life of Pets, Despicable Me 2, Toy Story 3 & 4, Inside Out, Incredibles 2, Up, Zootopia, Frozen and Finding Dory and TV series Sofia the First, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol, Octonauts, Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Of those, 52 hours of footage was looked over. The study’s authors concluded that of those scenes, there were 454 painful incidents depicted. Pain can be observed in many forms, so the researchers characterized it using the categories every day (a minor injury like a scrape or a bruise); severe (a more serious/severe injury); violent (intentional hurt inflicted by an observer); chronic (stomachache, headache or backache); and procedural/medical or other.

(Photo: peppapig.com)
(Photo: peppapig.com)

Most (79 percent) of the observed pain moments stemmed from violence or injuries and only 20 percent of examples illustrated everyday bumps and bruises such as falling or bumping into objects. Overall, male characters were likelier than females to undergo “severe” pain.

The researchers report a universal lack of empathy to a character in pain. Of the painful incidents, 75 percent were witnessed by others and in 41 percent of cases, characters did not seem especially responsive. Empathy was measured by whether the characters showed concern (by helping, making vocal remarks giving advice) or indifference (turned away from or ignoring the sufferer).

According to the American Psychological Association, empathy describes the ability to understand another person’s viewpoint or truly imagine how that person may feel or think. “Empathy does not, of itself, entail motivation to be of assistance, although it may turn into sympathy or personal distress, which may result in action,” notes the organization.

Daniel Tiger and friends. (Photo: PBS)
Daniel Tiger and friends. (Photo: PBS)

Representatives of the aforementioned media did not immediately reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, though Linda Simensky, the head of PBS Kids Content tells Yahoo Life in a statement, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, produced by Fred Rogers Productions, is grounded in a social and emotional curriculum through which empathy is one of the series’ guiding principles. In creating stories for each episode, being thoughtful about portraying and modeling empathy from the characters is always top of mind. In fact, one of the strategies ingrained in the learning framework of the series is to ‘think about how someone else is feeling,’ as we all believe empathy is a critical component in the lessons kids are learning.”

Study co-author Melanie Noel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary and a pediatric pain researcher, tells Yahoo Life that gender stereotypes were thematic. “[Overall], not only did male characters experience more severe and intense types of pain than female characters, boys were likelier to be laughed at, while girls received more empathy,” creating what Noel called a classic “damsel in distress” moment.

The depiction of pain is influential, because, as she co-writes in a forthcoming conversation piece about the research, “Simply put, pain is a big part of childhood. Yet, as a society we avoid, undertreat and stigmatize pain,” the consequences of which can affect the management of pediatric pain. Emotional pain is also linked to physical pain, especially in circumstances in which children feel their pain is unacknowledged.

“The development of empathy, the most salient example of which, is when someone falls down and gets hurt,” says Noel. “Our study is about pain, but also about empathy.”

(Photo: Disney)
Elsa from Disney's Frozen. (Photo: Disney)

“Our assessment is that these programs could do much more to help children understand pain by modeling it in different ways and crucially by showing more empathy when characters experience pain,” co-study author Abbie Jordan, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Bath, said in a press release. “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.”

And while the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time to less than one or two hours per day, the organization acknowledges that during the coronavirus pandemic, children’s media use will increase. “It would be optimal to be able to sit down with your kids and [help them] process what they watch, but that’s not realistic,” Noel tells Yahoo Life.

“What parents can do is ask their children, ‘What would you do?’ in certain scenes and model behavior for them,” she adds. “The media plays a powerful role but parents can model non-stereotypical gender roles and how to care for others.”

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