The Cult Of Cartoons
There comes a time when every parent relies on the television. TV can serve as a distraction from more adventurous pursuits and from the monumental boredom that occurs between gulps of spoon-fed food. Yet we’re as suspicious as we are relieved by the screen; we all worry about our children watching too much television. Whenever my son stares up at the TV, that convincing poem by Roald Dahl nibbles the back of my mind. If I replaced the TV with a bookshelf, I wonder, would he really thank me one day?
Unlikely. My son already loves books (mainly, at this age, eating and tearing them). And television is a reality of our lives. So rather than redecorate with a new book shelf, I think time is better spent understanding what makes TV — cartoons in particular — so addictive for the very young. Addictive may not be the best word — there is no actual scientific evidence that suggests that the cartoon format is psychologically addictive for young children. That said, there are several things that makers of cartoons understand about both young children and television viewing, the combination of which makes cartoons ridiculously appealing, for the very young.
The first thing cartoon makers know is that children have very short attention spans, which average 8 minutes for two to four year olds. There is no rocket science to this; if you have even one kid you already know that children need newness at the speed of light. This translates into short programming and simple storylines. Cartoons are rarely long; one episode of Sesame Street, which targets 4- and 5-year-olds, averages 22 minutes, as do other popular preschool shows such as Jake and the Pirates or The Octonauts. Shows aimed at toddlers (BabyTV’s Charlie And The Number and Louie’s Friends, and BBC CBeebies’ Chuggington) are even shorter, typically running somewhere between 4 to 10 minutes, though two or more episodes are often packaged together to create a half-hour or one-hour spot.
The second thing they know is that children love motion. So, cartoon characters rarely engage in extended conversations (the simplified plots don’t need them anyway). Instead, characters jump, roll, yell, dance, shout and even bang into things. Similarly, children love repetition, rhythm and colour. Cartoons combine all of these elements in a dazzling barrage.
The last and perhaps most well-kept secret of the children’s entertainment industry is character development. This can encompass many things, but the essence is that characters need to be relatable. This means someone who is also a child or childlike, someone who is silly, someone who can be trusted and, most importantly, someone your child wants to develop a long-term association or memory of. That last bit is key to cartoon ‘addiction’ or, indeed, the long-lasting love that Sesame Street’s famous Muppets inspire in generations of children.
My son used to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for hours, and I never quite understood why. Then, I watched an episode. Actually, I watched him watch the episode. If you haven’t done this yet, I highly recommend it. I realized that my son loved the song, loved Goofy in particular and squealed in delight at Donald’s funny voice, but the plot and mystery didn’t excite him.
Incidentally, this is how television is made. Creative teams produce episodes, and researchers test the show for engagement (a fancy term for addictiveness), by literally logging every 30 seconds what a typical target audience member reacts to most. In the old days, a paper and pen log were used, and the exercise was called measuring eyes-on-screen; these days, fancy gadgets allow researchers to produce heat-maps that literally track the movement of the eyeballs.
Over the years, television programming for children has changed from pure entertainment to what is known as edutainment, that is, educational entertainment. (The evolution of Mickey Mouse programming from when he first appeared in 1928 to now is a good example.) This is a good thing. If you must learn about polygons and squares why not have a well-loved mouse or fluffy monster teach you? Of course, edutainment is a big money-earner, tapping directly into parents’ wallets via channel subscriptions and cartoon-branded educational toys and clothing. And they won’t do anything to jeopardize that; in an industry driven by ratings and profits, quality of content is refreshingly prioritized. Many cartoon production houses hire education technologists from Harvard. They also have early childhood development experts on their payrolls, and every episode of a cartoon these days has an elaborate curriculum, educational goals, themes, sub-goals and so on.
But these behind-the-scenes processes, while interesting, aren’t as important as knowing how to replicate cartoons’ effect at home, in non-TV settings. If children have short attention spans and like action, rhyming, colour, funny voices, and pretending, then the answer, if you think about it, it is a no-brainer: We need to play with our kids.
I take even more inspiration from TV and pretend to be Dora the Explorer, my son’s favorite comic character. (I do Dora’s voice really well.) We go exploring all over the house, to the market, to school, to different cities where his grandma and cousins stay, discovering people, tastes, sounds and colors along the way. As it turns out, discovering these things in real life is even more exciting for him than watching it happen on TV.
If this sounds overwhelming, it’s not. Because here’s the main thing: We are already our kids’ favorite cartoon characters. But we only discover this when we turn off the TV.