Children’s television shows such as Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol should do more to educate young people about everyday pain, according to a study.
Researchers say the popular shows, as well as films like Toy Story 3 and Frozen, too often portray pain as something arising only through violent acts or injury.
A team from the universities of Bath and Calgary in Canada analysed how characters’ experiences of pain were depicted across different media aimed at four to six-year-old children.
Their study involved 10 family films from 2009 onwards; Despicable Me 2, The Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story 3 and 4, Incredibles 2, Inside Out, Up, Zootopia, Frozen and Finding Dory.
They also analysed popular six TV programmes; Sofia the First, Shimmer and Shine, Paw Patrol, Octonauts, Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood.
The study, published in the journal Pain, identified 454 painful incidents over the 52 hours of footage watched – a mean of 8.66 incidents of pain per hour.
Violent pain or injury was the most common type of pain depicted, occurring in 79% of incidents, while everyday pain such as a character falling over and bumping their knee accounted for just 20%.
According to facial expressions, boy characters were much more likely to experience severe pain compared to girl characters.
There was a general lack of empathy from other characters, with 75% of painful instances seen by others, but those who witnessed it did not respond or were not empathetic in 41% of those cases.
Dr Abbie Jordan, of the Department of Psychology and Centre for Pain Research at the University of Bath, said: “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.
“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.
“We know children spend increasing amounts of time watching these influential programmes and films and that what they depict feeds through to their understanding and awareness of an issue.
“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 programmes 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.”
Dr Melanie Noel, associate professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary, described the findings of the study as “shocking”.
“It is undoubtable that the media is a powerful force in how children learn about the world,” Dr Noel said.
“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 work was funded by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.