Research shows Disney’s “Cars” movie helps kids learn how to help others

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One of the most popular animated movies in recent years is Disney’s Cars. It may be even more popular after you read about how the movie helped kids learn to be more helpful to others.

Perhaps the best moment from the original Cars movie occurred near the end of the movie. You’ll remember that Lightning McQueen was about to win the final Piston Cup race. His rival Chick Hicks knocks Strip “The King” Weathers out of the race, and Lightning McQueen stops just short of the finish line to help The King cross the finish line. Hicks wins the race, but McQueen teaches a lesson about sacrificing to help others.

Researchers in The Netherlands conducted a study in which they showed some kids (ages 7-11) the above clip, and showed other kids a similar racing scene without the helping behaviors. Then, they had kids sit in pairs to complete a “what’s different about these pictures” puzzle. Results showed that kids who watched the scene with the helping behaviors helped their partner with the puzzle both more often and for longer than those who watched the race clip without the helping behaviors. In other words, watching the Cars clip with the helping scene influenced kids’ immediate interactions with a friend.

Many Disney movies have good lessons. That’s partly what makes them so popular. But this is one of the first studies to show that kids actually apply the lessons they learn from a Disney movie. The authors of the study suggest that this “points to the idea that Disney is perhaps not just entertainment.”

Let me offer one caveat to these findings. The researchers also measured children’s exposure to past Disney content, and found that past exposure did not have a significant effect on kids’ helping behaviors. Said differently, it’s possible the effects of exposure to such helping behaviors is only temporary. More research, of course, is needed to learn a bit more about the long-term effects of exposure to Disney depictions of helping behaviors.

Also, the role of parents in helping solidify these lessons in the minds of parents was not included as part of the study. Much of the research about helping kids learn positive lessons from media suggests that parent-child conversations are necessary in order to make the lessons stick.

So, again, we learn that not all media is bad for kids. But we’re also left with the idea that parents’ involvement in kids’ media experiences may be essential in helping short-term lessons become part of kids’ character.

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