Superheroes are awesome because they can run faster than a speeding bullet and teleport in a puff of blue smoke. But they also have a special power that researchers are only now just learning about. It seems they can help disadvantaged children.

Dr. Chris Fradkin, who spoke by telephone, said, “Superheroes can serve as tools to empower vulnerable children,” that is, children who have been orphaned, abandoned, or otherwise have absent parents. And it’s because children can identify with these superheroes, who have also experienced loss at an early age.

In the paper, “Shared adversities of children and comic superheroes as resources for promoting resilience,” Fradkin, along with his colleagues Gelson Vanderlei Weschenfelder and Maria Angela Mattar Yunes, created a survey to determine the vulnerability of superheroes, based on the top twenty highest-earning superhero movies. Fradkin noted, “Eighty-six percent of the top twenty superheroes were either orphaned or abandoned.” For example, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed when he was 8 and Tony Stark’s parents died in a car accident when he was 15.

Sadly, vulnerable children experience higher rates of “substance abuse, unprotected sex, truancy, self-mutilation, and criminal behavior,” according to the paper. In addition, they have “higher rates of conduct disorder, depressive disorder, and anxiety compared” to the norm.

Recognizing similarities between orphans and superheroes, the Rwandan Orphans Project (ROP) created a Superhero Academy for its students, to teach them “new ways of dealing with problems and conflicts as well as how to be more self confident and how to be positive role models,” as the project writes on its Facebook page.

According to the ROP’s Facebook page, Lisa Meaney, a “volunteer who designed and led the [Superhero Academy] workshop,” saw success in using superheroes to promote resilience. As Meaney wrote in an email to Fradkin, “Over and over again, the boys have made statements such as, ‘If Batman can be an orphan and be a superhero then so can I.’”

In addition to inspiring children who have suffered loss, superheroes can also aid children who are ill. The pediatric cancer ward of A.C. Camargo Cancer Center in São Paulo, Brazil, uses plastic covers on their patients’ IV bags, turning their chemo drip into “Superformula.” According to Fradkin et al’s paper, “This approach uses invincibility suggestion, in that it inspires children to believe that, like the superhero, they, too, have powers on which they can draw. These powers can help them battle against their illness.”

As Fradkin said, “Superheroes actually have health benefits that their creators had never foreseen.” As Spider-Man didn’t say: With great power comes… a great power.

Featured Image Credit: DC Comics.