Are children turning into cartoons?

One needed speech therapy because she was speaking like cartoon characters

In Summary

• Busy parents and guardians are not adequately monitoring their kids' TV watching

Kids watch a cartoon
Kids watch a cartoon

Anecdotal evidence shows excessively watching cartoons could make children copy the personality traits of their favourite cartoon characters. However, locally produced cartoons can help children learn positive values relevant to our society.

The appearance in cartoons from outside Kenya of LGBT characters has sparked genuine concerns over the influence of such programmes on the minds of children. Are cartoons mere entertainment or are they teaching children something?

An Indian spiritual guru recently talked about a young girl currently undergoing speech therapy because she was speaking like cartoon characters. The girl's strange way of talking was blamed on videos she watched on her parents' mobile phones. "Parents, keep your young children away from phones," the guru widely known as Shiva advises.

Lots of people commenting online on the guru's revelations said they had seen toddlers copying behaviour from cartoons. "A lot of parents don't realise how harmful it is letting their children freely use smartphones, tablets or even TV," one comment reads. "You buy some time for yourself but your offspring will pay dearly for the consequences of this."

"Some act like Mr Bean, some talk like Nobita or Doremon. Phone hours shouldn't be more than one or one and a half hours and within that time, define what to watch. Guide them. They need it," another commentator noted.

In general, most people agree that young children are picking up language cues and behaviour from cartoon characters because parents aren't spending enough time with the young ones. Dr Martha Njiiri, a communication expert who has investigated the effects of cartoons on Kenyan children, agrees that parents and guardians are not adequately monitoring how much their children are exposed to foreign television programmes.

"Parents are increasingly working longer hours as they strive to keep the households running effectively, leaving the older siblings to take care of the younger children or leaving the children with a caretaker," Njiiri says.

Further research confirms that most Kenyan parents don't watch TV programmes with their children. Njiiri suggests that mediated viewing, in which parents and children watch cartoons together, could minimise any negative effects on children's social development. "Mediation could be passive or active, with parents either setting up rules pertaining to television viewing or actively watching the television programmes with their children," she says.

Household rules on television could define, for example, at what time television is switched on, for how long and what type of content is allowed. When parents are available to watch television with their children, they can interpret what they see in a manner that teaches the child positive values. The parent can point out good personality traits to be emulated, while discouraging negative behaviour, such as violence.

Can children really pick up language from cartoons? Njiiri confirms that it is possible. "The same way children imitate what they see on television cartoon programmes is the same way they pick up words they hear on the programmes and integrate them into their vocabulary," she says. In addition, research studies have proven that children aged 2 and above readily learn vocabulary from television programmes.


Star columnist Nabila Hatimy, a mother to a toddler, admits that cartoons can quieten down babies, but she's worried about the long-term effects. "I use 'Cocomelon' and other cartoons in situations that require the child to be still. It works most of the time. However, as my child grows, I have realised that I do not particularly enjoy the hypnotic effects of the show," she wrote in her column.

Nabila believes that parents should be proactive in deciding what content their children watch, instead of merely following popular trends. She prefers her son watching interactive learning programmes that will help him practise his speech. "It is, therefore, up to the parent to decide what type of programming they wish to expose their kids to," she says.

Research done elsewhere in the world proves that cartoon watching affects the attitude and behaviour of children; their likes and dislikes, way of talking, and behaviour with other children. It also has a strong effect on their language, dressing and eating. That's the reason children prefer toys, snacks, books and even school bags with drawings of cartoon characters they admire. Products targeted at children often have drawings of cartoon characters for much the same reasons.

Teachers in Pakistan say that children who watch cartoons often demonstrate TV-related behaviour in the classroom. In Egypt, where 80 per cent of schoolchildren regularly watch cartoons, education experts found that negative influences could result in children turning away from local cultural values, attitudes and lifestyles.

On the other hand, cartoons have positive effects if utilised for educational purposes. Surveys in Egypt found that children who watch educational programmes have higher grades, read more books, place greater value on achievement, and show more creativity than children who watch violent or purely "entertainment" television. In a sense, good quality cartoons can be the equivalent of a school at home.

The US National Library of Medicine questions the educational value of cartoons to infants and toddlers. "Videos aimed at very young children do not improve their development," the organisation advises on its website. In its guidelines, NLM states that children under the age of two should not be exposed to electronic devices. This includes mobile phones, laptops, tablets and television. Toddlers over the age of two should get a maximum of two hours a day of screen time. Besides, it has been established that excessive exposure to electronic screens could result in eye problems, such as short-sightedness, as the child grows up.

Dr Njiiri believes there is a general lack of awareness that cartoon programmes could actually influence children negatively. She recommends that awareness campaigns be held so that parents and guardians know both the positive and negative effects that cartoons have on children's behaviour.

Children need supervision when watching cartoons. "Through guided supervision, children can be advised on behaviours to shun, such as offensive language or violent acts," Njiiri says. When away from home, parents should have a trustworthy adult be with children as they watch cartoons. Modern devices have parental controls to keep out inappropriate cartoons even when the parents are not at home.

The origin of cartoons Kenyan children are watching is another important factor to think about. Due to worries about foreign cultural influences, there are calls for locally produced children's programmes relevant to the African way of life. "The African child needs African content produced for them," Njiiri asserts in her report on the subject.

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