CAN I WATCH CARTOONS?
How to choose cartoons and how to make them a part of children’s lives in a conscious manner
More than a century after the invention of the very first form of television we can safely say that it has been, and still is, one of the most impactful and influential means of communication on the lives of millions of people. Over the years some habits have literally changed and families have often developed new routines and rituals whose focus is precisely the small screen: the news during or after the meal, relaxation in the evening before going to bed, the regular date with your favourite TV series... and what about the children? Cartoons and video games are very commonly used forms of entertainment, but it is really important to know the benefits and risks so as to be able to calibrate their use, also on the basis of one's own experience and habits.
What scientific studies say
The World Health Organisation’s guidelines strongly advise against exposure to TV screens under 2 years of age, and in the following years recommend a highly controlled use, preferably no more than one hour a day.
Over time, several scientific studies have shown that exposure to the small screen can cause varying degrees of potentially serious damage to brain functions.
A child’s brain is able to process 2 million neuronal connections per second that develop attention span, logical thinking, creativity, and curiosity over time.
But in order for the brain to function according to nature, it needs concrete experiences that connect the body with the state of reality of things. This is because, in essence, it is precisely in nature that the human organism receives the appropriate amount of stimuli for a correct functioning of all the skills acquired until that moment.
Exposure to visual stimuli provided by screens subjects the human brain to a much higher level of light signals than it is able to process autonomously; and it is precisely for this reason that a child in front of a screen is totally captured by the moving image which at that precise moment assumes features that appear totally real.
Some hypothesise about a state of hypnotic trance that totally inhibits awareness, allowing information to enter the subconscious without any filtering at all. It is clear that all this can cause minor or more serious damage to the entire system that regulates brain activity; it is therefore essential to calibrate our proposals based on the age of the children we are dealing with.
An important fact to take into account is undoubtedly the critical distance that the human brain can take from images and sounds: up to the age of about 6, children struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy or an imaginary world. It is a matter strictly related to the development of certain parts of the brain and for this reason it should not be done in advance, but it can certainly be facilitated and/or accompanied.
When we choose to offer our children some time in front of the TV, we cannot ignore the risks we are running. Knowing what is happening in the brain helps us to select the content we want to make use of.
The world of children's television is expanding continually and the proposals cover a range of themes, often leaving adults bewildered by so much choice.
We should always remember that it is extremely complicated for a young child to understand the true meaning of a carton, even if it is short and within their reach: the screen represents an overstimulation for the brain that finds itself in a state of chaos with extreme difficulty in deciphering everything it records. The perception of time and space is altered, especially when the cartoons do not refer to real individuals and scenes; in that case reality and imagination overlap and everything that an adult clearly understands as fiction can still appear possible in the real world for the youngest children. This aspect is associated with a range of things that are misunderstood that may lead to real fears.
A child who passively watches video content identifies with the characters, empathising emotions that they are not able to manage and this causes emotional states that are difficult to control for those who experience them and are often misunderstood by adults.
Are there any criteria we can use to select the content we think is best suited for our children?
Yes, of course! In general, we should start by thinking about our children, their characteristics and sensitivity, their tastes and desires. Bearing in mind that not everything that interests and attracts them is necessarily suitable for their age, we should also be guided by other aspects that are part of the cartoon.
- The characters should be of a similar age to the children: if the protagonists are generally older than our children, it is very likely that the dynamics within the story, the language chosen and the plot itself are too complex.
- The emotions that are developed: how do the protagonists interact with their emotions? How do they deal with them? What solutions do the protagonists come up with?
- The comprehensibility of the story: does the plot present events that a child could experience even in a real context? Do the events represent something that the child has already seen happen before? If we have answered “yes” to these questions we can allow the child to watch them and reduce the risks that a developing human brain faces in front of the TV.
- The reference to real life: what fantastic elements are part of the chosen cartoon? Could they arouse fears or beliefs, that are likely to be inhibiting? The closer a carton is to reality, the easier it will be for the adult to provide explanations, answer questions and make the content viewing a formative experience.
- The portrayal of shared positive values: are situations of friendship, sincerity, loyalty, inclusion and solidarity represented in the plot?
What’s the best time to watch a cartoon?
Some times are better than others for choosing to allow our children to watch some TV and this is essentially for two reasons: firstly, cartoons distract and lead the human mind into a fictional dimension, far from reality; the second reason is dictated by the effect that the brightness of the screen can have on sleep; in fact, exposure to TV decreases the desire to rest because it reduces the level of melatonin, the sleep hormone, produced in our body in the evening and at night.
It is, therefore, preferable to avoid turning on the TV at times when the child needs to concentrate or pay attention to a particular activity. For example, in the early morning it could be absolutely disastrous to propose a cartoon: that moment would have a negative impact on school performance in the first lessons. Similarly, in the evening before sending our child to bed we could suffer the negative effects caused by TV screens and struggle in trying to get our child to fall asleep after overstimulation by the light waves of the TV.
If we decide that television is part of our daily life, it is essential to set constructive limits, which allow children to understand the reasons why we not only select the content, but also the times when to enjoy it. We should choose times of the day when we know that children will be able to relax, without having to focus on an important and concentrated activity, for example, before dinner or after completing their homework.
We can also decide how long they can watch cartoons: 30 to 45 minutes a day may already be a satisfactory time.
What’s the best way to watch a cartoon?
Selecting the content in line with the criteria mentioned above is already a great step forward towards improving the television experience, but another important aspect to bear in mind is the active presence of an adult at these times.
If a parent looks at a carton together with their children, they can act as a mediator and facilitator in the process of understanding the contents: in addition to explaining what is happening and being able to interrupt the viewing to answer questions, the adult can (indeed, must!) give voice to and share the emotions that emerge without leaving any questions unexplained. At the end, a little time can be devoted to talking about the programme so as to connect what has been seen to daily experiences and to get the children used to reflecting on the situations portrayed and, therefore, reinforce their critical sense.
And what about when children do not want to turn off the TV?
For many children, watching TV is something extremely pleasant and engaging: it often happens at the end of an episode that they ask for the TV not to be turned off, if they can watch another episode and these requests often go on and on until we lose our patience.
In these cases it may be useful to act in advance and agree with our child beforehand how much time we will spend together in front of the TV.
In this way we can define a quantity and create a concrete connection so as to facilitate our children’s understanding of passing time: we can use a timer and remind our children that when it rings it will be a good idea to change activities, but we can also decide beforehand the number of episodes to watch and use post-its to view them (we can attach the post-its near the TV and when an episode ends we can remove one).
Television content can create beautiful shared moments and sometimes they help parents to entertain their little ones; consciously choosing what to watch and how to enjoy certain programmes together with our children is the greatest weapon we have to ensure that TV is a tool and not an addiction.