Nowadays cartoons are an important part of our reality. Several generations have already grown up with the animated movies by Disney and its counterparts, and, given the popularity of this kind of entertainment, the childhood of future generations is also likely to be marked by them.
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Children love cartoons and spend significant amounts of time glued to the TV screens, captured by the plots and mesmerized by the characters. In the meantime, their parents cannot help but wonder what kind of lessons these animations teach the young viewers and what kind of impact on the process of their upbringing the cartoons may have. Numerous studies devoted to the issue have produced the results that are more than a little disturbing. Despite the pleasure they provide for young viewers or the educational potential, cartoons can apparently have adverse effects on children’s behavior and development (Peters and Blumberg 144; Hapkiewicz 33)
The problem has been proved, illustrated, acknowledged, and addressed on governmental levels, for example, with the creation of specific bodies that are supposed to monitor the content of cartoons and define whether they are appropriate for a particular age group or not. At the same time, it appears logical for parents to take care of their children’s safety themselves. Indeed, given the importance of cartoons for the young generation, the possible adverse effects, and the ineffectiveness of regulating bodies, it seems, no one but parents is capable of preserving their children from the animation-caused problems.
Background. In the article “Cartoon Violence and Aggression in Youth,” Steven Kirsh points out that the first cartoon star was the 1920s “icon”, Felix the Cat, which means that children “have been entertained by animated films and television shows for over 80 years” (548). It is very obvious that the situation has not changed much; if anything, cartoons have become even more popular, admired by children and, occasionally, even by their parents. Throughout these years, the cartoons have been used to create millions of dollars for Disney Brothers’ or Hanna–Barbera, being “box office juggernauts” (Kirsh 548).
The unbelievable level of profitability of the business is not only the additional testimony to its popularity; it also shows that it is not likely to be given up soon, and cartoons are a part of our reality that would be expected to exist for centuries to come. Given the extreme popularity and “vitality” of cartoons, the issue of their impact on children’s behavior, psychological state, and upbringing process has attracted the interest of numerous researchers. The results indicate that the number of unfavorable effects of viewing cartoons is too large to neglect (Fouts et al. 16-17).
Claim. This paper claims that parents should be more aware of the type of animations that are being watched by their children and need to become involved in their children’s cartoon experience; the following sections present the reasoning for the claim and the solutions to the problem.
Counterclaim: Cartoon Popularity
According to Kristen Peters and Fran Blumberg, as of 1998, preschoolers would spend “up to 30 hours of television per week” watching animations (143). Apparently, children find cartoons incredibly entertaining, and this fact makes it difficult for parents to restrict the access to animations for their kids. This effect can be caused both by the resistance of children and the belief of their parents in the relative harmlessness or even advantages of the cartoons. Given the fact that superheroes are typically associated with positive traits, it is possible to suggest that animations are capable of promoting desirable behavior models and moral views, which accounts for the popularity of cartoons among parents.
In other words, cartoons are expected to be educational or to contribute to the process of children’s upbringing by promoting positive values. Still, there exists a bulk of studies, according to which the negative impact of animations effectively diminishes their potential value as an educating or upbringing tool. As for the pleasure that children find in animations, it certainly provides them with positive emotions, but it is not worth the possible drawbacks in their development. The following section is devoted to some of the negative consequences of cartoon watching.
Reason # 1: Cartoon Violence
One of the primary reasons for the caution, with which parents should approach the animations that their children favor, is the violence and aggression contained in these cartoons. According to Kristen Peters and Fran Blumberg, as of 1993 up to 92% of Saturday morning programs contained violence with about 71% of the rate for prime-time programs doing the same (144). Kirsh agrees to this fact, but also points out that the aggression acts in cartoons can most often be characterized as minor ones (549).
Despite this, “cartoon shows have been characterized as containing some of the highest levels of violent and aggressive content on television” (Peters and Blumberg 143). Therefore, the existence of cartoon violence is a well-known and properly documented fact, the proofs to which, no doubt, have been noted by most people in their everyday life. Moreover, violence appears to be almost characteristic of cartoons, which makes it is necessary to monitor the pictures that children choose.
It is not difficult to deduce that the acts of violence, minor or not, can affect the behavior and development of children in a negative way; nowadays, there exists scientific evidence to this fact. Numerous studies prove the fact that aggressiveness in young children, including preschoolers, tends to increase after watching cartoons that contain violence. Similarly, scientific research demonstrates that the children who watch violent animations tend to show a higher level of physical and verbal aggression as well as physiological arousal, a decrease in the level of moral reasoning, disobedience and reduced delay tolerance, victimization, and self-esteem decrease; apart from that, the quality of their sleep decreases (Hapkiewicz 30; Krcmar and Hight 255; Kirsh 553; Fouts et al. 20).
In other words, cartoon violence accounts for all the specter of negative effects that would be expected from it. What is more, the results that are presented above prove that, even though children develop differently and would be expected to be affected by onscreen violence to different extents, most of them tend to exhibit negative consequences. It is apparent, therefore, that the issue of cartoon violence is generic for children of different ages all over the world.
As shown by David Hubka, Lil Tonmyr, and Wendy Hovdestad, the issue of child mistreatment (physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, the latter being especially common) is found in Disney movies rather frequently (437). This problem, no doubt, accounts for the nervosity and victimization and well as lowering self-esteem. Apart from that, it is worth pointing out that one of the reasons for adverse effects of the cartoon violence could lie in the fact that superheroes, an attractive model from the cartoons, demonstrate aggressive behavior quite often (Peters and Blumberg 145; Baker and Raney 27).
Therefore, the images that are expected to promote positive values instead promote violence and aggression, which completely opposes the expectations of parents. The disobedience, as well as aggressiveness and deficient moral motivation, could result from this problem. What is more, even one exposure to real or fiction violence is enough to create a “mental model of violence” which makes the problem more urgent (Krcmar and Hight 253).
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It can be pointed out that it is useless to guard children against the harsh realities of the world forever. Indeed, it may be necessary for a child to receive experiences about the ways of the word, but cartoons may be not appropriate for this role, in part, since they tend to warp children’s perception of reality.
Reason #2: Distinguishing Fantasy and Reality
The role that animations play for children and their importance for the worldview of the young viewers conditions the fact that cartoons tend to influence the children’s perception of reality. In other words, animations can decrease the level of distinction between fantasy and reality, and this is another adverse effect of cartoon watching.
According to Nathalie Carrick and Madisenne Ramirez, unlike adults, children “may understand the boundaries of fantasy but have some limits in their understanding of reality” (478). The reason for this lies in the fact that children are exposed to experiences that typically differ from those of adults (Carrick and Ramirez 473). Indeed, it appears that parents tend to protect children from the themes and circumstances that could harm them. This process can have certain negative side effects as well: for example, children may (and tend to) have difficulties in distinguishing good and bad influences until a certain age. Still, restricting children’s access to damaging experiences is a natural thing to do, which is, in part, reflected by the parents’ attempts to control the quality of cartoons viewed in their family.
Indeed, it is obvious that cartoons are among the experiences that can shape the children’s understanding of reality, and this kind of animations influence has also been researched. This effect was characterized as an adverse one by of Baker and Raney as well as Peters and Blumberg, who note that animations can be harmful “because young children have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy” (144). This ability to warp the reality in a child’s eyes becomes more dangerous in the light of the cartoon violence and explains some of its consequences. For example, in case a child begins to believe that violence in the real world happens as often as in his or her favorite cartoons, nightmares and increased nervosity are to be expected.
Apart from that, given the prevalence of cartoon experience, the question of how children are going to react to real-life situations that are not demonstrated in their animations can become disturbing. Indeed, the lack of necessary real-life experience combined with rather weird ideas that are found in cartoons can result in confusion or strange behaviors. The latter could be connected to the strange moral reasoning mentioned in the previous part: in case a child misinterprets reality, there is nothing surprising in him or her misinterpreting the moral guidelines of the society.
At the same time, Kirsh suggests that children with different background and of different age may perceive cartoon violence differently and that the “perceived actuality is thought to be an important factor in determining the influence of media violence” (550). This claim could be regarded as another attempt at justifying cartoons and diminishing their danger. Still, the differences in perception are not likely to eliminate the danger of cartoon experiences: there are too many variables to be certain that a child is protected from the adverse effects; apart from that, some of these variables (like the specifics of psychological development) are too difficult to assess, which proves the importance of caution in respect to reality-warping cartoons.
Certainly, the differences and variables may be used to indicate the children who are particularly vulnerable to cartoon reality-warping influence, which means that the information concerning them should be made public. Still, the effectiveness of this “tool” will be sapped by the number and vagueness of the variables, which is why this variant is not regarded as the solution in this paper.
Reason #3: Gender Roles and Stereotypes
From the previous section it follows that the importance of cartoons for modern children also suggests that the worldview of young viewers could be affected if not shaped by animations. As a result, researchers and, especially, parents are concerned with the messages that cartoons provide for the children. This is the basis for the educational expectations that parents have in respect to cartoons. It is not unlikely that cartoons can indeed be used as an educational tool, but apart from that, they are capable of promoting disturbing themes and, in reality, the latter case appears to be too common to ignore.
For example, cartoons are known for demonstrating gender stereotypes. Pointing out that children are still struggling to discern fantasy from reality, Coyne et al. proceed to prove that boys who spend much time on superhero programs are more gender stereotyped (417). Kaylee Baker and Arthur Raney proved that the gender stereotypes reflected in cartoons resulted in “78% of children ages four to nine recognized males as having more total roles and more speaking roles in cartoons than females” (27). The figure is more than impressive and should be enough to convince the advocates of the idea of the relative harmlessness of cartoons. The adverse influence of gender stereotypes promoted by cartoons can, therefore, be considered a fact. It could be regarded as another experience that, just like cartoon violence, tends to warp the children’s perception.
What is more, other stereotypes can also find their way into children’s cartoons. For example, Hubka, Tonmyr, and Hovdestad demonstrate the negative character of the images of social workers in Disney pictures (11). Having encountered the negative stereotype, children grow wary of social workers, which makes the mission of the latter more difficult to accomplish. In the end, it is children who suffer from the short-sighted policy of the cartoons manufacturers. Another stereotype, the aggressiveness of superheroes models, was mentioned by Kristen Peters and Fran Blumberg (145). This stereotype promotes violent behavior as a trait of the “good” characters and, therefore, creates an image of the aggressiveness as a positive or, rather, “cool” habit. Given the popularity of cartoons and their ability to warp children’s perception, the existence of stereotypical imagery in animations is a problem that needs to be taken into account.
Reason #4: Motion Picture Association of America and Bias
Having admitted the existence of the problem of cartoon influence on young viewers, as well as having deduced the elements that are most harmful, modern society attempts to control the issue. The existence of bodies like MPAA is an example of such attempts. Most often the bodies check the content of new animations in search for the violence or improper images promotion, and such an initiative is, clearly, a logical and potentially extremely useful decision. The problem, however, is in the effectiveness of the said bodies, which, apparently, is often deficient.
For example, according to Ron Leone, the MPAA is unfair in rating movies, as the “MPAA allows children easier access to violent content, which is more harmful to them than sexual content” (69). In fact, Leone demonstrates that “a young child’s exposure to graphically violent, potentially harmful, content in a PG-13-rated film can occur without interference by the MPAA in the form of a restrictive rating” (74). Obviously, not every parent would agree to such a policy that makes one wonder why the government does not increase the control over the body.
However, it should be pointed out that the governmental control can be somewhat ineffective due to its inherent specific features. Indeed, the bodies need to take into account a general case, and, therefore, they cannot predict the reaction of a particular child or, rather, they are not meant to do so. In effect, the bodies cannot even completely prohibit the viewing of a particular cartoon. Instead, by providing their generalized guidelines, the controlling bodies offer their suggestions to the viewers and inform them about the content of the movies they are about to watch. Every child, though, is unique, and, therefore, it is apparent that the generalized suggestions are of little use for the particular case. Only the parents are capable of efficiently protecting their kids from the adverse influence of animations.
The overlapping problems of cartoon violence, reality perception warp, and gender stereotypes promotion are the result of the role that cartoons play in the life of modern children, primarily, their popularity. This factor makes the process of resolving the problem more difficult. In this paper, the increased participation of parents in the children’s cartoon experiences is regarded as a solution that has been already suggested by numerous researchers. For example, Hubka, Tonmyr, and Hovdestad encourage parents to pay attention to the cartoons that their children watch, and this suggestion could be regarded as the first step to resolving the problem. In effect, it can provide the parents with the necessary information about their children’s preferences, desires, and needs. In this situation, parents take up the role of an investigator, and, given their personal involvement in the process, they are bound to perform well. After the information is gathered, the second step to the solution is to be taken. This step can be defined as “mediation.”
One variant of mediation, the restrictive one, according to Coyne et al., “entails the setting of rules for children’s television exposure, such as limiting how much television children can watch or not allowing them to watch certain programming” (427). In this case, parents play the role of a regulation body, but it is obvious that children are not going to be overly fond of this method. It does not necessarily mean the deterioration of the relationship between parents and their children, but the negative emotions that the latter are bound to experience, make this kind of solution a rather unpleasant choice. Still, restricting the access to a damaging influence is a common and necessary practice.
At the same time, in the case of cartoons, another mediation variant exists, that is, the active mediation option. According to Professor Kirsh, active mediation presupposes “talking to youth about the content of violent media” while demonstrating an aversion to aggressiveness portrayed on the screen, discouraging the idea that violence goes unpunished and pointing out the feelings of a victim (554-555). This way of mediation is preferable: first of all, it does not require prohibiting the cartoons, which makes it psychologically easier for both parties. Apart from that, active mediation can become another educational tool, which is a natural consequence of the discussions involved in the process, or another chance of improving and guiding the development of a child. Finally, active mediation provides parents and children with another activity they can take up together; as a result, the relationship between them can be improved. Mediation can become the primary solution to the difficulties connected with the violence and stereotypes promoted by cartoons; apart from that, it could help parents to teach children to discern reality from fantasy.
The problem of MPAA and similar agencies can be solved on the governmental level with the help of increased monitoring of their activities, but the extent of this solution has already been defined as very limited. Therefore, the mediation method is applicable in this case as well. Indeed, Leone hopes to make parents aware of the flaws of MPAA system and encourages them to decide on the appropriateness of a film for their children, believing it would alleviate the adverse results of the MPAA biases (73). This suggestion appears to be most logical and can be easily incorporated into the intervention system described above. It can be concluded that parents are capable of alleviating all the adverse effects of animations, which is an inspiring suggestion.
Being extremely popular among young viewers, cartoons are bound to have an impact on the growing generations. While the recreational value of this kind of entertainment appears to be immense, the adverse effects that it may have on children are also astonishingly severe. The attempts at regulating the industry do not appear to be sufficiently effective. Still, controlling the industry is not the only solution to the problem; in fact, it does not even seem to be the most reasonable one. Institutions like MPAA can only take into account the average data, and there is no way for them to customize the recommendations. At the same time, children develop differently and possess unique personalities, which makes the unified approach of the mentioned bodies dangerously inefficient. Indeed, it appears that only relatives or guardians can know enough about a child’s development, sensitivity and needs to realize how to protect him or her from the harmful effects of cartoons.
Consequently, parents should pay more attention to their children’s cartoon experience and, if possible, get involved in it. The primary way to do it presupposes paying attention to the cartoons that a child watches and taking into account its potential impact. After that, of course, restrictive mediation is possible and, apparently, even necessary in certain cases, even though children are not likely to give up their entertainment willingly and may perceive it as a loss. Active mediation, on the other hand, is a solution with a particularly high potential.
By discussing cartoons with children, parents get the chance to understand their perception of the animations, make conclusions about the possible adverse effects, and alleviate the latter. Apart from that, active mediation allows parents to develop a critical approach to the information and its sources as well as assist a child in the process of understanding and formulating his or her own taste, interests, and views. Therefore, active mediation is a solution to the problem that does not demand restricting children’s access to their entertainment, allowing them to avoid the feeling of loss, and that exploits the controversy of the situation to gain significant benefits.
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