The other day I was asked the question, "Do you think cartoons like Bugs Bunny can have a negative effect on young children?" My initial response as a lay person was to say, "I really don't see any harm in pre-school children watching cartoons. I certainly watched them as a kid and I turned out OK." Then I stopped to consider what I had learned about children (from birth to age 5) when I attended the Erikson Institute for Early Development some 35 years ago. I wish now I had responded to the question with some thought and not "off the cuff". So now I'll share what I really think.
There are several variables to consider when it comes to young children: 1) are the parents thoughtful about what they want their children to experience; 2) is it understood that young children cannot separate reality from fantasy; 3) is it also understood that for young children, life events are reversible, (e.g.) someone dies - they come back to life. Think of Wile E. Coyote who is always in pursuit of the Road Runner...Wile E. invariably falls off a cliff when in pursuit of R.R., but not to worry, Wile E. will be alive and well in the next scene. 4) is the television being used as a makeshift "babysitter" to give the parents a "break"; or 5) do the parents sit with their pre-schooler while watching the cartoon, commenting on what happens when someone gets hit on the head (it hurts) or that shooting at someone with any weapon can seriously injure or even kill someone.
Some people have said to me, "Oh, come on...you're thinking too much! Just sit back and enjoy." When my daughter was a toddler and even older, I felt it was important to supervise her well-being almost constantly, stepping in when I thought it was necessary to say something or limit or distract her in some way. As any parent will admit, a toddler can get into some kind of trouble in just a few seconds. My younger sister (who had eight children of her own) commented to me years later, "With you fussing over your daughter so much, I thought she would grow up and be neurotic (crazy). But she has become a very thoughtful and loving child; so, good for you."
I will add now that it is quite possible to make your child neurotic and this stems from the parent-child relationship. When a parent routinely intrudes into a toddler's world, not to protect the child in some way, but more to allay their own anxiety and worry in the role as parent. In fact, whenever a parent responds out of their own anxiety, anger, impatience, frustration, etc, it is here we are more likely to err, and where the toddler may feel confused or temporarily unloved. Now I encourage all of us who worry too much about "hurting the child" to remember that, as parents, we ALL make mistakes. It is only when we consistently respond or act on our feelings, that way fail to think about the needs of the child in any situation.
Now back to the discussion about pre-school children watching cartoons. At Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the department of Human Development has done research on this very subject. One professor there, Stevie Hossler has written about the mental and psychological effects of children's cartoons:
"Children have become much more interested in cartoons over many years and it has become a primary action to some lives. Typically, children begin watching cartoons on television at an early age of six months, and by the age two or three children become enthusiastic viewers. This has become a problem because too many children are watching too much television and the shows that they are watching (even if they are cartoons) have become violent and addictive. The marketing of cartoons has become overpowering in the United States and so has the subliminal messaging. The marketing is targeted toward the children to cause them to want to view the cartoons on a regular basis, but the subliminal messaging is for the adults’ to target them into enjoying the “cartoons”. This is unfortunate because children watch the cartoons on the television and they see material that is not appropriate for their age group. The Children who watch too much cartoons on television are more likely to have mental and emotional problems, along with brain and eye injuries and unexpectedly the risk of a physical problem increases."
From the time that children start school to the time they graduate, they average spending about 13,000 hours in school. Does that seem like an awful amount of hours? Compare this to the average amount of television watched, nearly 18,000 hours (from the time they start school till they graduate). This is a major concern because this excessive amount of violence in television will have an effect on their brain, their emotions and their sense of pain. In a 2000 report on adolescent violence, the U.S. Surgeon General, David Satcher, MD, stated the following:
"More aggressive behavior in a young child’s life is caused by frequently watched entertainment that incorporates violence in it. This has become a public health issue and because of the research findings, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution in February of 1985,informing broadcasters and the public about the dangers violence on the television has on children. Three major effects have been proven by psychological research caused by children seeing violence on television are, that the child may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; children who watch violence do not fear violence nor are they bothered by violence in general and the children are more likely to become aggressive or use harmful actions towards others."
So, to make a long story shorter, the take-away from this is that excessive exposure to violence does have a deleterious effect on young children. But the key word here is "excessive"...perhaps hours vs. minutes. So, would you ever allow your young ones to watch cartoons? Yes, I would, with the following understanding: infrequently and always supervised. The child needs to hear about reality from the parents; the ability to fantasize they've already got down...cold.