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Bang, bang time!

Violence in cartoons how it affects the young mind

  • What the TV stations say
  • By Uthpala Gunethilake
    ImageEver marvelled at the way we seem relatively undisturbed by the bomb explosions and other brutal incidents that make up life in Sri Lanka today? After the first gasp of horror, and after checking if any of those who are close to us are affected, we lapse into our daily routines, unmoved by the scale of violence in our society.

    Is it because violence is as common as air these days? What's amazing is not how many acts of violence or depictions of violence we hear about or see in a day, but how many we actually notice. We see images of violence everywhere, from giant movie billboards and newspapers to cartoons. 
    Violence in cartoons passes us by most often because television has become a way of keeping children busy. For harassed mothers, struggling to cope with office responsibilities and home chores, cartoons are taken for granted as the best form of entertainment for children. The irony is that cartoons expose children to violence more than any other mode of entertainment, because of the number of hours they spend watching them.

    Violence in cartoons is not new. Old family favourites such as 'Tom and Jerry' and 'Road Runner' can easily be labelled as violent. Remember what happens to Tom every time he tries to get his paws on Jerry, and what befalls poor old Wiley Coyote every time he lays a trap for Road Runner? It will certainly appall any advocate of non-violence. Characters in many of the current series now being aired, such as 'X ImageMen' and 'Mummies Alive' meanwhile, use far more advanced methods of bashing up villains. 

    But the question is, are children really affected by the violent and scary scenes in cartoons? Do the scenes they view with such wide-eyed wonder, have the potential to make them violent themselves? Does such exposure make them insensitive to violence in their surroundings? 

    Activist groups the world over are lobbying for violence-free children's television, and in the west, certain programmes have been banned because of their high quotient of violence. And there have been reported incidents about children hurting themselves or others by trying out in real life, what cartoon characters do to each other. In Sri Lanka however, there have not been such cases though there is growing concern among parents about what their kids watch on TV.

    According to analysts there are two types of violence in cartoons. One is comic violence, where the actions, violent as they are, are supposed to make the viewer laugh. The general bashing and squashing in cartoons such as Road Runner over which even adults howl with laughter, fall into this category. Supposedly, violence of this type is so unrealistic that no one, not even children, really take it seriously.

    But the other type of cartoon violence, termed malicious violence, depicts horrible things which could very well happen to anyone. Many of those injuries and punishments are based on some obscure logic and introduce children to appalling ways of putting things right and solving problems by the use of force or by wielding a weapon. Researchers say that approximately 18 incidents can be spotted in one hour of cartoons. Multiply this by the intensity of violence and you wonder how much savagery the impressionable mind of a child can take.

    But the attention span of children is very short and there has to be some strong element in TV programmes to hold their interest. The action sequence in cartoons is apparently an excellent way to keep them engrossed. Indeed, a class of nine-year-olds piped up enthusiastically that their favourite was 'X Men', an action cartoon that is as popular here as it is in the west. 

    Clinical psychologist Parvani Pinnawela says that there is mixed evidence as to whether different forms of media violence can actually provoke children to be violent themselves. Explaining that according to studies, violence in the media certainly has the potential to affect children's behaviour, she stressed that it however, depends on many factors. "Everyone doesn't get affected the same way. It depends on individual differences, coping strategies, parental skills, home and family background and the perception of the individual," she explained. 

    However, she pointed out that violent cartoons can be damaging to very young children, because they cannot distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. The fear that they themselves can become victims of the kind of violence shown in cartoons can take root in their minds. 
    They need someone to explain the scary scenes in cartoons, explained Ms. Pinnawela, adding that cartoon violence "can make them feel that the world is more threatening than it really is".

    Activists for violence-free children's television claim that cartoons trivialize violence and stick positive labels on negative things. In many cartoons problem solving means bashing up your enemy with the heaviest object that comes to hand, and the consequences are not often shown because they are not important to the storyline. Therefore, the child might never learn from the cartoon that violence indeed has serious consequences. 

    According to studies, violence in cartoons can desensitize kids to violence. Cartoons are an inseparable part of a kid's daily routine and many faithful hours a week go into watching cartoons. A three-year-old who is at first scared of violent cartoons will come to a point when he is able to watch the same violence unflinchingly. Ms. Pinnawela added that it can also increase children's appetite for violence, teaching them new ways of being violent.

    Children, who are quick to pick up behaviour patterns, often tend to ape the aggressive behaviour of cartoon characters. Mrs. Hemali Gunewardena, mother of two boys aged four and 11 said that her children invariably act out the fights they see in cartoons.

    "Lack of empathy for victims of violence is also another possibility," said Ms. Pinnawela, pointing out that this is an alarming fact in a society such as ours. While in the west certain cartoons are banned and various methods used by parents, state organizations and other interested groups to rate and monitor the suitability of each cartoon before they are viewed by children, in Sri Lanka, such a filtering process is unknown and selection remains in the hands of the producers and programme managers of television stations (see box story). 

    But are parents here worried? The mother of a seven-year-old who wished to remain anonymous, said that parents did not have much choice in the matter. "Cartoons are produced in other countries and we cannot control what they show. And if you try to stop children watching cartoons there's very little that they can watch," she said. Although children imitate the action sequences, she pointed out that they are not likely to do anything really harmful. "Violence is part and parcel of their lives, so violence in cartoons doesn't really make much of a difference," she explained.

    Mrs. Hemali Gunewardena feels that in a way, watching action cartoons can teach kids methods of self- defence, while exposing them to the fact that the world they live in is no longer innocent. "You can't survive by being too innocent, and children have to know that." 

    "Sometimes they do show brutal things happening to people and I try to control what the kids watch, but it's difficult," admitted the mother of two. 

    Limiting the amount of time spent watching cartoons and monitoring and restricting violent programmes, seem to be the obvious ways to side-step kids getting affected by violence. But according to Ms. Pinnawela, there are other things that a parent can do, such as teaching children the alternatives to violence in solving problems, and watching cartoons with them, discussing and explaining the content. "By this, you are helping the child to actually look at cartoons as fantasy. You are making entertainment educational," she explained.


    What the TV stations say

    Entertainment is the main factor when buying cartoons from foreign producers, said the programmes manager of a leading television station who wished to remain anonymous. "We mainly follow market trends and boys go for a lot of action cartoons. Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between action and violence," she said. 

    She explained further that when you buy from large-scale producers such as Disney and ABC Network, the cartoons come in packages and you cannot make individual choices. "But we always try to balance what we choose by having several soft cartoons among the action cartoons," she added. 

    Stefan Beekmeyer, General Manager - Marketing and Operations at Dynavision said that the cartoons shown on Dynavision do not include action cartoons. "What we show are the sober type, and some people don't like them. Even if we run a trailer for an adults' movie with a bit shooting during commercial breaks in the cartoon belt, I get a whole lot of calls from parents," he added.

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