How Cartoons Shape the Minds of Children

A young girl watching cartoons.

Cartoons shape the minds of children. (Image: oddharmonic via Flickr)

Of all things that influence the minds of children, cartoons possibly rank right at the top. Whether the cartoon is funny, sad, heroic, adventurous, or evokes any other feeling, the characters, their relationships, and the ideologies they present can leave a lasting impact on the young minds.

Themes of cartoons across generations

Though cartoons have been around since the beginning of the 20th century, they started gaining in popularity in the late 50s when the proliferation of TVs made channels start to broadcast serialized cartoon shows on a regular basis. Since then, cartoon shows have evolved in terms of the themes they cover and the audience they target with every passing generation.

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Of all things that influence the minds of children, cartoons possibly rank right at the top.
Of all things that influence the minds of children, cartoons possibly rank right at the top. (Image: Julian Tysoe via Flickr)

The 1950s and 60s: The funny, witty times

This period was dominated by shows like Tom and Jerry, Loony Tunes, Yogi Bear, and Scooby-Doo. Most of them were focused on eliciting laughter from the audience. Some cartoons also incorporated moral teachings, like caring for friends, helping someone in need, and so on. A few cartoons changed the characterization of certain subjects to suit a more modern, equality-centric society of the times. For instance, some of the earlier Looney Tunes cartoons — with characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig — had racial stereotypes of Africans, Mexicans, Germans, and Japanese. Such instances were edited out from the cartoons when they were broadcast on television. Instances like drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and violence were deemed unsuitable for children and were also edited out.

The 1970s and 80s: Rise of the superheroes

Superheroes started dominating cartoon shows during this period. Shows like GI Joe, ThunderCats, He-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a huge hit among kids. While earlier, the cartoons were focused on simpler subjects, the superhero shows introduced the “save the world” trope that still dominates the industry even today. Morality was defined as defeating an evil force who/which was aiming to harm the world. The focus of morality essentially shifted from a few individual characters to masses of people.

While earlier, cartoons used to trigger questions like “Shouldn’t I help a person who asks for my assistance?”, the new cartoons triggered questions like “Shouldn’t we fight against an evil government?”, and so on. Shows started featuring mechanized characters like robots and their relationship with humans, with the animated series The Transformers being a perfect example of this. In 1989, The Simpsons started to broadcast, which would once again shift the themes of animated shows.

 The 80s saw the rise of superhero cartoons such as He-Man.
The 1980s saw the rise of superhero cartoons such as He-Man. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

The 1990s to today: Social commentary

While earlier cartoons were watched largely by children, The Simpsons popularized adult-focused cartoon shows in America. Similar cartoons that started to broadcast during this period include Family Guy, South Park, and Futurama. It was also during this period that the cable channel Cartoon Network became popular. These shows focused on mature themes like sexuality, individual identity, pop culture critique, and so on. As such, kids who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s watching cartoon shows of those times became the audience for such shows during their adulthood. Even cartoons aimed at children started fusing social issues into their episodes and overall themes.  

Identifying with cartoons

Since children have not yet developed an identity of their own or what the world is, they easily get attached to things they love. When it comes to cartoons, they start identifying with their characters, tribulations, and emotions. Most kids are unable to realize the fact that the cartoon characters they admire so much do not exist in real life. It is only during elementary school that this realization starts to dawn on them.

“When [kids] meet Robert Downey Jr., he’s Iron-Man. They don’t get that this guy does not have Iron Man powers… So that’s really important to remember, that when they’re looking at this, to them, it’s real. It’s very real,” Dr. Jessamy Comer, from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Department of Psychology, said to RIT Reporter.

A child’s inability to discriminate the real world from the fictional world of cartoons makes their viewing habits even more critical. If they end up watching shows that are too violent, with characters that are arrogant and rash depicted as stylish, it is highly possible that the kids will identify such behaviors as ideal and will try to morph themselves toward such tendencies.

Violence and cartoons

There has been criticism that some cartoons are too violent and that they might trigger violent tendencies in young children. Most superhero shows basically have the hero beat up villains, some pretty viciously. Shows with heroes that are vigilantes also normalize violence outside legal restrictions. Even shows as simple as Tom and Jerry contain narratives where one character seeks revenge on the other, adding humor to such pursuits.

Loony Tune’s Road Runner cartoons have the same problem. “Someone always gets beaten. Pretty hard beaten… Throwing a grand piano on someone’s head, gunshots, explosives in someone’s hand or mouth, and the loud explosion that follows, all of these are subliminal or quite direct messages depicting violence that flow into children’s minds. Kids absorb these scenes like a sponge and accept violence as something quite normal and common,” according to Novak Djokovic Foundation.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids who watch cartoons with excessive violence tend to be aggressive, nervous, and disobedient when compared to other children. They are also likely to be more insensitive to the pain of other people and might not feel any discomfort when faced with extreme violence in real life. A study by Iowa State University discovered that some of the cartoon shows targeted at children had far more brutal violence than those aimed at mature audiences. Such shows are often overlooked by parents under consideration that “they are just cartoons.”

 Loony Tune's Road Runner and Wile E Coyote cartoons are noted for their violent content.
Loony Tune’s Road Runner cartoons are noted for their violent content. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

Parents need to realize that the open-mindedness of children is both a gift and a danger. Propaganda groups might mix their ideologies in cartoon shows in a bid to influence the next generation. Conservative fundamentalists can create funny cartoons that depict hating people of non-Christian faiths as acceptable. Conversely, liberal fundamentalists can create animated shows that depict people who do not approve of LGBTQ relationships as hateful.

Now, this does not mean that cartoons are the most dangerous form of entertainment for kids. Not at all. There are shows that will help kids improve their knowledge, develop a sense of morality, have compassion for the weak, and so on. It is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that their kids are not exposed to harmful cartoons.

“It would be better if parents also regularly watch and discuss the characters of cartoons with their children. This way they will not only keep their kids away from violence but also direct them to… other activities,” according to Samaa. If you do not have time to watch cartoons with the kids, at least make sure that you research the shows that they watch. Identify those that have excessive violence or sinister ideologies. Remove the channel from your TV subscription or block the show in case you use streaming services like Netflix.  

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