The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Do Children Enjoy Violent Cartoons?

Child watching violent cartoon
This kid may kill us all someday

In recent years, several independent scientific studies have indicated a positive relationship between violent television programming and violent behavior in young people. Though the causal nature, implications, and significance of the relationship are still open for debate, there is no denying a need for further study. As a new parent, I feel the need to ignore my gut reaction and give this research a fair hearing. Should parents be concerned about how much violence children are being exposed to? With some analysts reporting that as much as 70% of all children's programming contains violence, should we be worried about the effects it is having on our kids? According to science, these are fair questions.

With that in mind, researchers at Indiana University conducted a study to test the common assumption that children like violence in cartoons. The results of the study (Indiana University. "Violence doesn't add to children's enjoyment of TV shows, movies." ScienceDaily, 24 May 2011. Web. 25 May 2011.) are surprising in that they indicate that young boys tend to prefer less violence in their cartoons and that violent content seems to have no positive or negative effect on how young girls view a cartoon. Before we start preparing for a future filled with mundane children's cartoons and a blanket ban on Bugs Bunny, let's take a closer look at the study.

From a sample of 128 children between the ages of five and eleven with a close to even ratio of boys to girls, kids were shown one of four versions of an objectively terrible five minute cartoon and asked detailed questions about how the cartoon made them feel. The researchers altered the amount of violence and non-violent action in each version so as to gauge the different reactions to those factors while controlling for other attributes. The results were pretty conclusive. The boys in the group tended to relate so much with the characters that the violence was at least mildly disturbing, which goes against several common sense assumptions. However, the statistical sample was incredibly small and it is difficult to account for individual preference.

Orangehead and Eggle
Apparently, children don't like this

Also, if you watch the violent version of the cartoon, you can see how jarring that violence is. The cartoon, "Picture Perfect Thief," is about two characters, Orangehead and Eggle. Orangehead has painted a painting and wants to deliver it to a contest where he is sure to win first place. Eggle, on the other hand, wants to steal the painting. In one moment of the non-violent version of the cartoon, Eggle is stopped when he inexplicably slips into a can of paint. In the violent version, he and Orangehead actually share blows, which leads to Eggle being knocked into the paint. Indeed, the only significant difference between the two cartoons appears to be the fact that Orangehead and Eggle punch each other from time to time. This is hardly representative of the violent slapstick found in real cartoons, because it feels far more real than a piano falling on Elmer Fudd's head or a Pokemon character shooting jets of magical fire.

It is no wonder children relate to Orangehead and Eggle in the non-violent version, because in the non-violent cartoon universe, their fates are decided by random chance, whereas in the violent one, both characters choose to solve their problems in the least constructive way possible. Surely children over the age of four wouldn't want to watch a cartoon where the characters communicate, share, apologize, and sing a song about friendship, but nobody is suggesting that they would want to watch a cartoon where the characters just go around punching each other either. So even though the authors of the study are quick to criticize television producers for making assumptions about what children want to watch, the study itself is too simple and too small to make any useful conclusions without making an even greater set of assumptions. It's certainly a useful early step and demonstrates a need for more thorough research, but nobody should be treating it as anything more than that. If the study proves anything, it's that children don't like stupid cartoons.

Fresh Beat Band
The study says nothing about the inexplicable popularity of stupid live action shows, however

It strains credibility to argue on the sole basis of this study that producers across the country have gotten children's preferences completely wrong since the dawn of television. If children were so averse to violence, surely they'd choose to watch the less violent programming which would surely be noticed by parents and advertisers. This would inevitably lead to a decrease in the violent content of children's programming, something that does not appear to have happened yet. Naturally, it is possible--even extremely probable--that the current generation of young people has different tastes than the generations that preceded it, but the ebbs and flows of preference are so complex, varied, and unpredictable that nothing as small as a single research project can predict where they are or will be at any given time. A more accurate measure of children's preferences, despite what free market haters would have you believe, is which cartoons are actually popular. Since violent cartoons are currently enjoying great ratings (and have been for several decades now), the evidence doesn't support the conclusions of this study.

The possibility that violence has a behavioral effect on young people is compelling, though. Studies have shown that children who watch violent programming are more likely to behave aggressively in both the short and long term, that the brains of children watching violent media don't suppress inappropriately violent behaviors as well as the brains of children who don't watch violent media, etc. In short, the correlation has been demonstrated with enough consistency that it shouldn't be easily dismissed.

Alas, it is hard not to conclude that these studies are overblown by panicky types who are all too eager to socially engineer our young people into docile, stress-free sheep who sweat Ridalin and never lose their innocence. After all, we seem to have grown so paranoid as a culture that many schools have banned dodgeball and don't keep score in sporting events because it might damage our children's fragile little self-esteems. Some places have even outlawed toys in fast food kid's meals, because obviously, if it weren't for the toys, children would suddenly start to make better dietary choices. But I digress.

Jack Thompson
Jack Thompson: you can't write on this subject without including a picture of this douchebag

If you look carefully at the studies that positively correlate violence in media and aggressiveness in children, the statistical significance of that correlation is relatively tiny. You could have a million children watch the same violent content for the entirety of their childhood, and only a small number of them would turn out violent, and it would be hard to know what percentage of that small number wouldn't have turned out violent anyway. In fact, no study has been able to sufficiently control for the alternative causal possibility that children who are prone to violence are more likely to watch violent programming. Every parent has the right to be paranoid (God knows I am), and every parent has the right to interpret this data however they please. However, what worries me more than my child watching Squidward put Spongebob in a headlock is that some politician will try to take away my right as a parent to choose what's best for my kid.

Granted, the above study says nothing about politics or legislating morality. Even though the authors have been quoted criticizing television producers, the study doesn't even try to imply what people should or should not do. Science should never be conducted with political implications in mind, and I in no way have a problem with researchers conducting studies like this one. However, we should be careful to keep our emotions in check, to keep a level head, and to not let paranoia control our lives. In that regard, Andrew Weaver, one of the study's authors, leapt to several unscientific assumptions when he said, "If producers are willing to work on making cartoons that aren't violent so much as action packed, they can still capture their target audience better . . . and without the harmful consequences." I am all for science digging deeper into the question of how violent media affects children, but from everything I've seen and read, I have come across nothing that justifies an alarmist view on the matter. Take a deep breath, look beneath the headlines, and make up your own mind, but don't start arguing that the sky is falling.

-e. magill 5/25/2011

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