With the publication in Pediatrics of the second of two articles by a research group at the University of Washington, we gain a startling picture of how violent cartoons and more pro-social cartoons affect very young children. In their first article, the focus was on sleep problems, in the second, the children’s behavior.

The researchers describe their methods succinctly: More than 500 families with children between the age of 3 and 5 were selected for the study. The average TV involvement of these kids was about 4 hours per day. The researchers divided them randomly into a control and intervention group.

The control group continues watching their usual cartoon fare, many of them violent, like “Road Runner” or “Scooby Doo.” Families in the intervention group are counseled to watch a cartoon fare described as pro-social and educational like “Dora the Explorer” and as neither violent nor pro-social, like “Curious George.” They agree to adhere to this media diet for six months, with a follow-up after a year.

All families receive a home visit and the parents complete a well-known children’s behavioral questionnaire called the Social Competence and Behavioral Evaluation tool. In it, parents answer questions to clarify if their children are manifesting certain behaviors like shoving, yelling, bullying and destroying things, arguably the building blocks for downright aggressive behaviors later in life. More positive behaviors are also tracked, like sharing, cooperating, and being sensitive to other’s problems, that is, positive attributes that most parents and societies prefer in its young when they enter school.

The outcomes are striking, though perhaps not surprising. Very young children immersed in pro-social and non-violent cartoons after six months are more sociable children. The kids left to watch violent cartoons manifest more often early signs of aggression.

In the follow-up six months later, many parents have reverted to old media habits, and their kids seem more violent. In other cases, the parents chose to remain on the non-violent diet, and the kids often remain better behaved.

Where are we left then? In their discussion section, the authors begin from a classic perpsective, namely cognitive learning theory. Kids are truly educated, in a social sense, by what they watch and hear in their social surround, even if this means the media. In fact, the average family in the study relies heavily on the media as a baby-sitting tool: their kids are immersed in media viewing, mostly TV and DVDs, for at least four hours per day. Though the research technique itself is simple and requires small amounts of research dollars, its ramifications seem huge.

First, children learn a lot from the media. They imitate what they see and hear. They identify with the characters, even cartoon ones. These very young children cannot state the lessons they learn in words. Yet on an implicit, verbally unstated level, they are learning how to be in the world, even while watching characters like Scooby Doo or Power Rangers or puppets like those on Sesame Street. They mimic and emulate what they see. They act on what they see.

Second, this process beginning early in life calls to mind a well-known adage: neurons that fire together wire together. What this means is that when a group of neurons are activated concurrently in a child’s central nervous system they begin to form a kind of firing unit. So when a child sees violence used as a means to solve a problem, this lesson become hard-wired in the central nervous system. When a pro-social approach to a problem, like sharing, or turning to an adult for help, or using words rather than actions, are used, this too becomes imbedded in the child’s response when facing a problem. Certain behaviors are not simply learned but neurologically fixed, and therefore hard to change.   

This process is well underway by age 4. It certainly continues into the school age and teen years. Children and teens imitate those whom they see and admire. Behavioral and emotional lessons are learned. The child becomes what he eats, not just the food he digests but also the media diet he consumes.

Finally, though the characters are cartoon figures or clownish in the early years, the media is taken seriously. And as the child grows, and cartoons give way to actor-mediated dramas, sitcoms, thrillers and horror flicks, the process of learning, which involves mimicking, imitating, emulating, incorporating, and identifying, culminates in the formation of the young person’s identity.

In the article, the researchers are especially concerned about a subgroup of kids in their study who manifest perhaps the greatest trends toward aggressive behaviors, namely boys of lower socio-economic status. Although there may be many other factors afoot in these boys’ development, like their being raised in single parent homes, their having genetic proclivities toward impulsivity and hyperactivity, and often their viewing real life struggles between parental figures, their problems seem likely to be even more deeply impacted on by viewing violence in the media. And this lifelong process may begin in the form of violent cartoons.

About the Author

George Drinka, M.D.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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