Movies for kids and teens aren’t only designed to entertain. They can also be imbued with messages about what’s right and wrong, what actions make a hero or villain, and how to navigate moral dilemmas. Consider The Hate U Give, a movie that deals with how teens can use their voice against racialized gun violence. Or WALL-E, which contains messages about environmental destruction and consumerism.
If movies have the potential to shape children’s and teens’ character, how often do they elevate lessons about ethical and moral behavior? And do children and teens want to watch these kinds of movies?
Researchers at UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers explored these questions in a recent report, “The Good Guys: How Character Strengths Drive Kids’ Entertainment Wins.” They analyzed over 1,700 movies for children and teens released in theaters after 2010 to see how many character strengths were featured in each film—qualities like compassion, empathy, gratitude, and integrity. Films could earn tags for 11 possible character strengths if the qualities were reinforced repeatedly and integral to the plot and characters, and helped characters succeed.
The quality and success of the films were measured in different ways: how many stars each movie received (from Common Sense Media film reviews), how much money each movie made in ticket sales during opening weekend (from Box Office Mojo), and audience and film critic scores (from Rotten Tomatoes).
The results? Movies that prominently featured character strengths tended to make more money on opening weekend both within the United States and internationally compared to movies without character strengths. This was true even when the researchers accounted for how many stars the film received, and the audience and critic scores, so their success wasn’t just about being better-quality movies. Worldwide, the average difference was striking—these movies made $51 million more than movies without characters strengths.
Qualities like perseverance, courage, and teamwork were featured most often (in over 300 films each). But qualities like gratitude, humility, and integrity were less commonly highlighted (in fewer than 100 films each).
“These are the character strengths that children struggle with the most, and so creators may be missing an opportunity to help children where they need it most,” explain the researchers.
These also happen to be some of the character strengths that are most important to parents. A recent nationally representative Character.org survey in the United States found that honesty was the most important quality parents wanted their children to care about. And yet another nationally representative survey found that only 2% of boys believe that society most values qualities like honesty and morality in them, compared to 35% who believe strength and toughness are most valued.
The report also found notable differences in films based on their target audience age. Movies made for 13 to 18 year olds had fewer character strengths compared to movies for younger children, which more often featured no character strengths at all.
“Teens are at a critical developmental stage where they are impressionable and easily influenced by their social environments, including media,” explain the researchers. “There is a clear gap in the industry for content directed at teens that promotes positive character strengths. . . to help youth so they can better navigate the key challenges and changes they are experiencing.”
How movies make us better people
The researchers’ call to action for the entertainment industry is supported by a research review of over 70 studies. It found that children and adults who view media (especially movies) that feature “voluntary behavior with the intention of benefiting others” are more “prosocial.” They tend to have more feelings of concern or caring for people in need, and also tend to act with kindness, such as by helping and thinking kind thoughts, especially toward strangers. They also tend to be less aggressive and less likely to intentionally hurt others. The authors of this review encouraged parents to reflect on what kinds of messages movies are communicating by asking themselves, “Is the media depicting helping or volunteering, and is it toward a stranger or friend?”
How can watching a movie that features stories about character strengths lead children and teens to grow those qualities? Psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer explains that people don’t simply reflexively imitate what they see in media. Watching characters in movies has the capacity to awaken us and tap into our thoughts and feelings, which, in turn, can transform how we understand the world and prompt us to interact with others in a different way.
For example, when we see a character in a movie help or share with someone, our beliefs can change so that we view acting with kindness as the right or typical thing to do. These beliefs—that acting with character and kindness is ordinary—can become deeply held and stay in the forefront of our minds, which can then guide our everyday actions and our expectations that those around us will do the same.
Greitemeyer also described how kindness is contagious—that its benefits go beyond a one-on-one interaction and can spread across society. Researchers have found that kindness can cascade across three degrees of separation. “That is, [people] may influence their friends who, in turn, influence their friends, who finally have impact on their friends,” explained Greitemeyer. With this in mind, movies have an unparalleled potential to spread kindness and moral values, and nurture thriving in children and teens.