From Cocomelon to Captain Planet: What cartoons should your child be watching?

Educationists link screen time with increased irritability in children and give preference to experience-based learning over virtual learning.
07 Jan, 2023

Earth, fire, wind, water and heart — the eponymous character of the TV show Captain Planet made of these five elements was in many ways prescient. It taught a valuable lesson regarding the perils associated with pollution. It was ahead of its time by addressing dangers to the environment at a time when climate change was not a mainstream topic. Today, this issue occupies a central position within political discourse.

The show’s messaging was always through interesting stories and vivid visualisation that kept children engaged. Who doesn’t recall the 90s when we had STN and watched Thunder Cats and Camp Candy? Huddled together with snacks, it was a treat to watch them but what is noteworthy is that we didn’t spend an entire day in front of the television. Perhaps limited slots for shows were a blessing in disguise as we did plenty of other things, like playing monopoly and developing cognitively by playing games such as hide and seek.

In another time slot came a colony of small, blue creatures who wore Phrygian caps and lived in mushroom-shaped houses in a forest — The Smurfs! Each Smurf had a role and their character names were based around adjectives i.e. Jokey Smurf who was obviously funny and Papa Smurf, the leader. Each Smurf was defined by their distinct quality. Sixty years after its debut, The Smurfs is still teaching life lessons to children all over the world.

Why Cocomelon is as bad as candy for breakfast

Kids today have infinite access to Cocomelon. It is overly stimulating, has highly colourful characters, raucous nursery rhymes that pierce the ears and scenes that change rapidly. According to recently released figures from Nielsen, Cocomelon is an extraordinary streaming success and topped the slots in Hispanic, Asian and Black households. That reflects its universal appeal — and influence.

There is constant repetition of rhymes and it offers a complete sensory overload. The sort that gets kids addicted, causes a withdrawal and leaves them dysregulated, just like after consuming fast food and sugar. Overstimulation is also overwhelming. Eyes are exposed to bright, fluorescent images and ears to deafening sounds. Children’s brains are still adjusting and learning to sort through a motley of clutter and stimulation, and hyper TV content such as Cocomelon often makes for hyper kids.

Incorporated Television Programme Company admits kids can learn harmful behaviour from TV. It is only natural for little kids to mimic what they see. But then what is good content and what is bad content? How does one differentiate?

Good content and bad content

Sarah Mansoor, a Karachi-based educationist and mother of three kids, says she mostly relies on authentic channels, assuming that these big names would have hired content creators with a background in early childhood development.

“I like content that appears to have a clear objective, that is teaching numbers, colours, feelings, etc,” she said. “Bad content, in my opinion, would be content that aims only to entertain, not teach. I have noticed increased irritability, not due to quality of content as much as I have noticed the correlation with number of hours spent on a screen.”

Controlling screen time is essential

As a working parent with the tremendous duty of catering to three different age groups of children, Mansoor says that devices are always human-led and enforcing healthy limits to screen time is essential. “Though never my source of entertainment of choice, screens are great to settle toddlers when the caretaker needs a moment to collect themselves or simply to attend to something that cannot be done while being attentive to a toddler at the same time,” she said.

“We tend to forget about setting time limits as it is tempting to use screens to calm babies. But in the long term, I feel that just reinforces a cycle of tantrums. So, I don’t demonise screens, but I don’t think we should view them as learning tools. They pacify the child, and we can hope they learn a thing or two while they’re on it — but learning should come from experience at this stage.”

There is no substitute for experience. Watching butterflies fluttering their wings on a screen does not equate to the sensory experience of a visit to the park, sitting on grass, feeling a tickle on your feet and watching a butterfly’s vibrant wings flapping around to pollinate flowers. There’s a reason why we rush outside after a downpour to look at a rainbow and marvel at nature painting a curve of seven colours.

Educational children’s content — choosing quality over quantity

In recent times, if something has caught my eye for a wholesome children’s experience, it has been Michelle Obama’s production Waffles and Mochi. It is a children’s cooking series with globetrotting adventures, humour and recipes through which children learn about different countries and their food. It is fun, engaging and educational.

The characters have a deep sense of learning in it and are curious by nature. They travel the world to learn about potatoes and pickles, and herbs and spices. For this they travel to Peru, Italy, Japan and numerous places within America, and you learn about these places in the process. It is roughly for children aged four plus but adults can enjoy it just as much!

There are parents who want the role of cartoons and TV shows to go beyond simple entertainment. For Ayesha Ibrahim, a Dubai-based homemaker and mother to two kids aged five and three, content is key.

“What I look for is the quality of language (accent, enunciation, grammar), [the] overarching theme should be character or skill building and quantity of content (good or bad) viewed should be moderate.” Ibrahim says The InBESTigators has been a favourite in their home for some time. It is an Australian mockumentary children’s television series with humorous and brainy moments.

Pakistani content for children — where art thou?

My all-time favourite, Sesame Street, through its different characters and themes was a revolutionary children’s show. It wasn’t just entertaining; it was educational too and addressed individualism that can be found in all of us. By emphasising on cultural diversity, Sesame Street made itself relatable to almost everyone who watched it and the show still appeals to all ages and genders. Elmo, Bert, Cookie Monster, everyone can identify with at least one character. Those were the influences most of my peers and I grew up on.

But while many foreign shows that have comfortable spots in our homes, Pakistan lags behind in original and informative content for children. Already decades behind the world with a local version of Sesame Street as it was picked up by several countries, it came to Pakistan in 2011 but the United States cancelled funding for Pakistan’s version of the children’s show only months later after allegations of fraud and corruption by the muppet theatre company producing it.

However, in 2013, the multi-award winning television series to come from Pakistan, Burka Avenger took the region by storm with over 200 million views on YouTube. Its burqa wearing female role model for children also has its own merchandise, children’s learning guide and a comic book series.

Created and produced by producer, director and music icon Haroon, Burqa Avenger is an orphan girl who grows up learning how to fight with books, pens and education.

What can parents do?

Online sources are packed with both great and harmful content, and it is greatly up to the parents on what they introduce, monitor and remove from the clutter. So then, what can parents do? For starters, learn how to set parental controls and limit screen time. The more children are exposed to incessant activity, the more they expect similar constant gratification in person.

A lot of parents may have noticed children complain a lot about feeling bored within minutes of getting free time. A result of over activity online, perhaps? Avoid leaving children unattended with your mobile phones. Observe your own child and see how they react to what they see. My kid gets a lot of pleasure by watching and mimicking ‘Wheels on the Bus’, and picked up actions and sounds like vroom vroom and “the wipers go swish swish” and I let him have his few minutes of stimulation.

But when the same kid demonstrates disrespectful behaviour by watching shows like the Kids Diana Show, then it’s best to remove it from an ‘allowed’ list so they don’t mimic similar conduct. Recently, Pakistani actor Hira Tareen urged parents to monitor the content their kids watch. She candidly indulged in online content for children and made an important point that although many shows may not be produced with an ill intent, a lot of them are not regulated and thus require a parent’s supervision.

She started a debate by highlighting that anyone can create a YouTube channel with kids doing silly things and call it content for kids. Her statement aroused a range of reactions, many from concerned parents. Tareen shared that she noticed her daughter impersonating Diana, mimicking her impolite tone at home and started expecting toys and furniture as seen in the show. Children of course have limitations in comprehending what is fair to demand, but parents can show farsightedness and set rules that work for their household.

Reversing children’s negative screen habits is hard — but worth it

Deprogramming your child after hours or months of being conditioned through a show will be no easy feat. I will admit, there are times it’s simply convenient with the rapid pace our lives now move at. In fact, YouTube has sometimes acted as a babysitter when I’m alone at home with a toddler and without help. I know that leaving him with a gadget would ensure he won’t move around and injure himself!

Some alternatives I have enjoyed experimenting with have been videos of the sea life. The music playing in the background is usually soothing and I don’t mind hours of the underwater ecosystem on my television. We enjoy watching a school of snappers swim their way around coral reefs together. Baby TV also has calmer colours and sounds compared to a lot of clamorous content on YouTube. Where there are definitely better alternatives available, online learning is definitely not a substitute to actual learning, a far more visceral experience.