George Drinka, M.D.

George Drinka M.D.

When the Media Is the Parent

Cartoon Violence and Children’s Sleep

Kids who watch violent cartoons are more likely to experience sleep disturbance.

Posted Jun 19, 2013

In a flurry of articles published in the LA Times, USA Today and elsewhere, journalists report a few months ago, we learned of a a surprising finding described in a recent article in the scholarly journal Pediatrics. Certain popular cartoons, like “Bugs Bunny,”  “Sponge Bob,” and “Scooby Doo,” seem to have a negative effect on children age 3 to 5. The same study described a positive effect of other shows like “Dora the Explorer,” “Curious George,” and “Sesame Street.” Though the first group of shows was not actually named in the scholarly article, the lead researcher got specific in a follow-up interview published in the Huffington Post.

What is the Negative Effect? The effect is on children’s sleep. Kids who watch cartoons like  “Scooby Doo” are more likely to experience sleep disturbance than kids who watch “Curious George.”

Why the difference? Per the researchers, the difference relates to the amount of violence in the one set of shows versus the other. Old Scooby is actually quite violent, Curious George not so much. In “Bugs Bunny,” the characters are always slapping each other around. In “Dora the Explorer,” barely ever.

How was the research done? Researchers at the University of Washington randomly selected families of kids age 3 to 5 in the Seattle area. They negotiated with more than 500 families to let interventionists enter these families, analyze their media viewing habits, and induce the parents to complete questionnaires about the sleep habits of their kids. About half the sample group was randomly selected to work to turn off violent cartoons and focus their kids on more educational and pro-social shows like “Sesame Street” and “Dora the Explorer.” The intervention lasted 12 months. The children’s sleep habits were reassessed at six, twelve and eighteen months from the start of the intervention. Those in the intervention group, generally speaking, were sleeping better.

Were parents aware of the violence?  In fact, the difference in violence levels caught the parents unawares. After all, to most adults the violence of Bugs seems comic, not serious.  Not so for kids, it seems. Children are more concrete, more literal, the authors of the scholarly article suggest. They are prone to seeing comic violence as potentially frightening, anxiety inducing, similar to how actor-mediated violence often impacts on older children and even adults.

What are the take-away lessons? The authors draw two conclusions. First, due to the way the research was developed, they contend that watching more violent cartoons can cause sleep disturbance in young children. We’re not simply talking about correlation, but causation. Second, parents should be aware of these deleterious effects and act accordingly. After all, the researchers point out, poor sleep for children is associated with other ill effects like behavioral and emotional problems, later school difficulties and even obesity.

Should parents be alarmed?  Perhaps not exactly alarmed, since further research needs to be done to validate the study’s findings. But they should be concerned about the ill effects of media violence on their children. After all, there is an abundance of research that underscores this point in regard to other forms of media violence. Further, the problems with media violence on kids may begin very early in life, even in their cartoon days. Finally, parents must be aware of their own desensitization to this violence. Many parents grew up watching the same or similar cartoons and are unaware of how it impacted on them. Slowly but clearly, media violence has crept into the lives of many American families. We see it as part and parcel of our lives, or at least our media lives. We even consider it a laugh.