Cartoon violence, kids and aggression

The fate of Wile E. Coyote or the antics of Tom and Jerry didn't harm a generation of kids but research shows the effects of today's graphic cartoons and computer game characters aren't so innocent.

At a glance

  • Research indicates that exposure to violence makes it seem more acceptable to kids.
  • Today's animation and games are so realistic it can be hard for kids to tell the difference between ‘pretend' violence and live action, making some animation just as disturbing as the real thing.
  • Consider your child's age carefully when deciding what level of violence (or scariness) they can handle.
  • Check out game and movie reviews online at Common Sense Media and Know before you go.

Lots of parents question the violence in many of today's cartoons and video games, but many of us grew up watching Tom & Jerry, The Road Runner, and other animated favourites where violence was also a key ingredient.

So was humour – and the reassurance that no matter what happened, no one ever got hurt; at least not fatally. Everything always ended well.

In fact, you can argue that aggression and hostility has been the linchpin of cartoons and fairy-tales forever.

What is Sleeping Beauty without the evil threat of the jealous witch, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs without a near-fatal dose of poison that confronts children, perhaps for the first time, with the notion of suddenly losing a loved one?

Research and cartoon violence

Professor L Rowell Huesmann, senior research professor at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, in the USA, says there is little difference between the Tom & Jerry era of cartoons and the violence in cartoons now.

'Except more graphic violence produces more desensitisation,' he says.

The author of a number of studies on media violence and aggressive behaviour in children, Professor Huesmann says there's evidence that exposure to media violence can lead to aggressive behaviour and ideas, provocation and anger in viewers.

Australian parenting expert Michael Grose agrees, but says some children are more predisposed to being affected by media violence than others.

'Often it depends on what sort of kids they are. Young people who live at the edges, who don't fit in, the loners who spend excessive amounts of time internalising certain videos – they are more susceptible,' Michael says.

He believes cartoons are good for children.

'It prepares them. It actually personifies the unknown to them.'

And it presents conflict, drama and pain in a manner that is indirect and impersonal – it happens to Wile E. Coyote, never to anyone else.

Why today's violence is different

The difference with graphic violent games and cartoons of today, says Michael, is that violence is indiscriminate and often perpetrated by the heroes themselves, for immediate reward.

'It brings it out in kids, gives them permission, shows them how to do things. Particularly boys who are more hardwired to do that.'

The research community isn't all in agreement, however. Experts such as Professor Jonathan Freedman of the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Canada, don't believe media violence is necessarily related to aggressive behaviour in children.

In published articles, he questions whether watching violence produces violence or desensitises people to it. He points to Japanese cartoons, traditionally much more violent than American ones, to back his theory. Japanese are in general, a very polite, non-aggressive people, he has reportedly argued.

Despite the media attention views like this receive, Dr Wayne Warburton from Macquarie University, Sydney, believes there is no doubt about the evidence available today.

'It's very well documented,' he says.

'There are hundreds of studies that show that if you have a lot of exposure to violent media, including cartoon violence, you tend to develop a belief system that thinks the world is more harmful and violent than it really is.'

Becoming desensitised

Dr Wayne Warburton says after just a 20 to 30 minute viewing session the viewer is immediately desensitised to its content, regardless of age or genre.

'Desensitisation means a loss of empathy to others' suffering. It means becoming more callous towards others' problems, and [losing] the willingness to help,' Wayne says.

But many experts agree that it all depends on your child's age.

'Children younger than seven have trouble differentiating what's real and what's not,' says Michael Grose.

'From eight to 10, they like the idea of scarier and more violent movies – zombies, for example – but physical harm and gore is still too much for them.'

Early teens however, 'love to be scared out of their wits', not so much with images but with tension and music. Older teens can handle suspense and dramatic build-up.

Parents should not be tricked into thinking that because a story is presented in cartoon format it has a lesser impact on children. While children could easily differentiate between cartoons and live action in the past, computer-generated game and video images today are blending the two and causing the same impact on kids.

It's all about balance

Parents must not be pressured into thinking they have to allow their children to have the latest game console, play the latest computer game or watch the latest movie release, afraid the kids will miss out on important developmental opportunities.

Have it as one tool in your tool kit available to children. Don't throw the TV and the computer out, but make sure there is a balance. And be mindful of the content.

A great place to start researching which movies are suitable for your child is the Know Before You Go review section on the Young Media Australia website. Professional educators review the latest movies and recommend titles for kids of all ages.

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