Did you have any idea that Disney Princess stories can be harmful to your kids?
A new research from BYU family life professor Sarah M Coyne shows that engagement with Disney Princess culture isn’t so harmless, it can influence preschoolers to be more susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes.
These stereotypical behaviours aren’t bad in and of themselves, but past research has shown that they can be limiting in the long term for young women.
The study involved 198 preschoolers and assessed how much they interacted with Disney Princess culture (watching movies, playing with toys, etc.).
The assessments of princess engagement and gender-stereotypical behaviour were based on reports from parents and teachers and an interactive task where the children would sort and rank their favourite toys from a varied collection of “girl” toys (dolls, tea sets), “boy” toys (action figures, tool sets) and gender-neutral options (puzzles, paint).
The researchers found that 96 per cent of girls and 87 per cent of boys had viewed Disney Princess media. And while more than 61 per cent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, only four per cent of boys did the same.
For both boys and girls, more interactions with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behaviour a year later.
Gendered behaviour can become problematic if girls avoid important learning experiences that aren’t perceived as feminine or believe their opportunities in life are different as women.
Greater female stereotypical behaviour is not worrisome for boys because the boys in the study who engaged with Disney Princess media had better body esteem and were more helpful to others.
These beneficial effects suggest that princesses provide a needed counterbalance to the hyper-masculine superhero media that’s traditionally presented to boys.
However, the negative effects for girls aren’t limited to damaging stereotypical behaviour alone.
The study also shows that girls with worse body esteem engage more with the Disney Princesses over time, perhaps seeking out role models of what they consider to be beautiful.
Children don’t have to completely disengage with princess culture, it’s not realistic to avoid the abundant princess movies, toys and branded merchandise. Instead, parents should foster a wide variety of interests and talk to their kids about media influences.
For both genders, the study discovered that parents who discuss princess media with their children have a significant effect on their children’s behaviour. Coyne adds that it’s important to be careful about the way in which parents talk to their kids about princesses.
The study has also been published in journal Child Development.