What is it with superheroes? Children embrace the Iron Man figures and Spider-Man lunch boxes before they've even seen the movies or read the comic books. Perhaps it's the underwear as outerwear element - after all, Mum would never let you leave the house like that.
"One of the biggest reasons kids love superheroes is the sense of control and power they can exert on the world vicariously," says Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hricdubai.com). "By channelling their energies into these fictional figures, they can conquer bad guys, rule the world and be kings or queens of their own universes."
A superhero who saves the planet might seem like a good thing, but science is divided over whether Superman and his pals are helpful for kids.
In defence of the superhero
1. Key concepts. Superhero play helps children develop concepts such as right and wrong and good and bad, and gives parents the chance to have important conversations with children.
2. Patience. A study by Karina Chung and Aryanne de Silva at Wellesley College in the US found that wearing a Superman cape and hearing about his fantastic abilities made preschoolers better able to delay gratification.
3. Confidence. In the world of superheroes, anything is possible. All that dreamed-up play is great exercise for the brain and the imagination. "Parents who allow their children to indulge in the make-believe world of superheroes will find their offspring have higher levels of confidence and competence," says Jiwani.
4. Helpfulness. Possessing superpowers in a virtual world makes people more likely to be helpful in real life, according to a study conducted by the clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
"Children age 3 to 4 years find it difficult to differentiate between reality and fiction and, as such, the trait of superhuman strength is completely believable to them," says Dr Amy Bailey, clinical psychologist at kidsFirst Medical Center, Dubai (www.parentingdubai.com).
5. Empowerment. "Children have very limited control over many areas of their lives. Becoming a superhero in their play allows them to access some sense of power," explains Bailey. "It can help them act out and process any inner turmoil and sense of powerlessness that they have. This can help children to resolve issues of power and control, and it allows them to resolve or reduce fears and anxiety. They can also try out different personas and can experiment about the type of person they want to be."
6. Healthy food choices. Although fast-food restaurants are offering more healthy options for kids, children aren't asking for them when they order. Dr Brian Wansink from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in the US found that children can be primed to order healthier fast food items by thinking about what their favourite superhero would eat.
The case against heroes
1. Violence. "Today's superhero is too much like an action hero who participates in non-stop violence," says Professor Sharon Lamb, a psychologist in the US.
"He's aggressive, sarcastic and rarely speaks about the virtue of doing good for humanity. When not in superhero costume, these men exploit women, flaunt bling and convey their manhood with high-powered guns. Boys could look up to and learn from comic-book heroes of the past because, outside of their costumes, they were real people with real problems and many vulnerabilities."
2. Age appropriateness. "It would be an advantage for preschoolers to experience more age-appropriate characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine or Bob the Builder rather than superhero programmes because these characters provide role models of social behaviour that build the platform for the more sophisticated content of battles of good versus evil in the later years," Jiwani says.
Common Sense Media in the US advises parents to wait until children are 7 years old before they are allowed to watch the Spider-Man and Superman television series, and 8 years old before they watch the Batman series.
3. Safety. A superhero costume can provoke perceived super-abilities that need special supervision, says Dr Patrick Davies from the Department of Paediatrics at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, UK.
In a study called Superhero-Related Injuries in Paediatrics, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, Davies and his colleagues say that superhero role models can give unrealistic expectations to children, which may lead to serious injury.
4. Aggression. There's no getting around the fact that superheroes are violent. "The risk to superhero play is that sometimes children's behaviour can become out of control and escalate into chaotic play as a child becomes submerged in these roles," says Bailey. "Some people believe that allowing such play is giving permission for aggressive behaviour."
Indeed, some schools have banned superhero play from the classroom. The challenge is to control the child's levels of aggression within this play. "Talk to your child about other positive characteristics of their favourite hero, such as their clever thinking and care of others. Help shape their play by creating stories and limiting their exposure to more aggressive shows," Bailey says.
Life lessons from superheroes
Batman: Anyone can be a hero. Batman shows you don't have to be born with superpowers to be a hero. Bruce Wayne can't fly. He's not part-god. He just fights bad guys.
Power Rangers: Teamwork is essential. If you're going to defeat evil you need to work together. Although there is a leader, all of the Rangers need to work as a team.
The Hulk: Control your temper. Mr Green is a good guy until he gets angry. The message to kids? Keep that temper under control or it could get you into trouble.
Spider-Man: Be responsible. As Peter Parker's Uncle Ben says: "With great power comes great responsibility."
Superman: One man can make a difference. He might work alone, but he does what he can to make a difference.
Iron Man: No one is perfect. Tony Stark lacks discipline but he tries hard to overcome the worst parts of his personality with his genius mind and good intentions.
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