When thinking of childhood memories, most people can recall sitting in front of the television on a Saturday morning watching cartoons. While still wearing pajamas and eating a bowl of cereal, children across the country have made watching The Flintstones, Hello Kitty, and many other cartoons a ritual for decades. As time passed, cartoons were incorporated into daily programming and even invaded prime time television. What used to be reserved for Saturday mornings is now part of a daily routine. This increase in the accessibility of animated entertainment can be an enjoyable, wholesome family experience. Television programs such as Sesame Street can provide children with learning opportunities. Cartoons such as Franklin or Little Bear contain lessons about social skills. Cartoons can be magical, filled with stories of princesses and talking animals. However, because cartoons are comprised of false realities, parents have a responsibility to carefully choose which cartoons their children watch.
Children do not possess the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality until late childhood (Kirsh, 2006). The result is that some cartoons can be harmful, especially if the child is watching them for long periods of time. Not every cartoon is as beneficial as Sesame Street or Little Bear. Children like to imitate what they see and when cartoon characters exhibit undesirable or unsafe behaviors, children can imitate those same behaviors. Cartoons such as Loony Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Batman, and many others mislead children about the consequences of violence. Cartoons show violent acts such as gunshots, but not the true consequences. In the world of animation, characters constantly survive bombs, falls, explosions, and other violent acts, but consistently walk away unharmed.
Dual priming can take place when the violence is coupled with humor (Kirsh, 2006). Watching an act of violence in a cartoon, and seeing that act portrayed as humorous makes children process the act as less violent. This is especially true of younger children because they may perceive morality as a result of the consequence of the act, instead of the harmful intent by the perpetrator of the act (Kirsh, 2006). Some research indicates that camouflaging violence with humor reduces the negative effects on aggressive behavior, but may still increase thoughts of aggression (Kirsh, 2006). Other research shows that there is a connection between watching violent television programs and aggressive attitudes and behaviors (Nathanson and Cantor, 2000).
When children confuse reality with fantasy, tragedy can strike. A ten year old boy from Washington suffocated in a sandbox after he and his friends attempted to re-enact a scene from the Japanese animated show, Naruto (Surette, 2008). The problem is not limited to the United States. A nine year old Saudi boy was killed by an iron skewer when he and another boy tried to imitate a fight from a cartoon (Emirates 24/7 News, 2012). In China, a six year old boy jumped from a six-story window because he believed he could fly like his favorite cartoon character (GB Times, 2014). Another Chinese incident resulted in two brothers being badly burned when another boy tied them to a tree. The boy set the brothers on fire because the three were recreating a scene from the Chinese cartoon, Xi Yangyang and Hui Tailang (BBC News, 2013).
To lessen the impact of comedic violence, research has shown that active mediation, focusing on the negative impact of the violent act, reduces the child’s view of violence as being humorous (Kirsh, 2006). Research has also shown that active mediation provides children with a better understanding of the difference between the real world and fantasy (Nathanson & Cantor, 2000). A problem of active mediation is the unintended effect of reduced enjoyment of the program (Nathanson & Cantor, 2000). By encouraging children to consider the feelings of a victim of violence, the program becomes less fun to watch. Although this may be a negative effect from a child’s point of view, the effect is positive for parents because the reduction of negative attitudes and behaviors due to cartoon violence is the goal. Although this type of tragedy is not the norm, losing even one child is unacceptable, especially if it is preventable.
Chinese tv cartoon blamed for child injuries. (2013, December 19). BBC.com. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-25447851.
Boy jumps from 6th floor while imitating flying superhero. (2014, January 10). GB Times. Retrieved from: http://gbtimes.com/china/boy-jumps-6th-floor-while-imitating-flying-superhero.
Kid killed in fake fight after watching cartoon. (2012, January 10).Emirates 24/7 News. Retrieved from: http://www.emirates247.com/news/region/kid-killed-in-fake-fight-after-watching-cartoon-2012-01-10-1.436865.
Kirsh, S. (2006). Aggression and violent behavior. Science Direct, 6. 547-557.
Nathanson, A., & Cantor, J. (2000). Reducing the aggression-promoting effect of violent cartoons by increasing children’s fictional involvement with the victim: a study of active mediation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 1. 125-142.
Surette, T. (2008). Boy dies after friends imitate Naruto. tv.com. Retrieved from: http://www.tv.com/news/boy-dies-after-friends-imitate-naruto-11008/.