Sorry, Tom & Jerry, Cartoon Violence Doesn't Reel Kids In, Study Finds

So, the Road Runner regularly blows up Wile E. Coyote with Acme explosives. And Tom? He's always taking a frying pan to the face from that rascal Jerry. As for the hijinks that go on between Itchy and Scratchy from "The Simpsons," well, kids just find those literal slashes and burns downright hysterical.

Maybe not. A new study in the journal Media Psychology finds violence injected into TV shows and movies aimed at kids doesn't actually make children enjoy the offerings any more. "Violence isn't the attractive component in these cartoons, which producers seem to think it is," Andrew J. Weaver, assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, says in a press release from the school. "It's more other things that are often associated with the violence. It's possible to have those other components, such as action specifically, in non-violent ways."

Weaver adds that cartoons just don't need the violence to appeal to kids. "They'll like them without the violence, just as much if not more," he says in the release. And it's not just Looney Tunes that feature antics such as anvils being dropped on heads, trains smashing into characters or dynamite destroying everything in its path. According to the release, some analyses show up to 70 percent of TV shows for kids feature violent content.

"For many producers and media critics, the question is not if children love violence, but rather why children love violence," Weaver and his co-authors write. "Our goal in this study was to examine children's liking of violent content while independently manipulating the amount of action, which is often confounded with violence in the existing research."

Researchers looked at 128 boys and girls ages 5 to 11, showing them four versions of an animated short made for the study, according to the release. One version included six violent scenes, another version showed nine action scenes, and the other two versions featured less action or violence.

The release states that the shorts with violence had indirect negative effects on boys. "That was a little surprising," Weaver, who has two young sons, says in the release. "There is a lot of talk about boys being more violent and more aggressive, for whatever reason, social or biological, and yet we found that they identified with the characters more when they were non-violent ... They liked the characters more and they enjoyed the overall cartoon more."

The girls studied, however, didn't "decrease wishful identification of the characters," according to the release. Weaver says the girls probably don't identify with the male-geared slapstick cartoons, and saw the characters as boys, even though they had no sexual attributes.

"They're not going to identify with what they perceive to be male characters, whether they are violent or not," he says in the release. "They didn't prefer the more violent programming. They were just using other cues besides the character's violent or non-violent behavior to determine how much they enjoyed the show."

So, what's a riled up toon to do? Run really fast, Weaver says. "If you can increase action without increasing violence, which clearly is possible as we did it in this study, then you can increase the enjoyment without potential harmful effects that violence can bring," he says in the release.

Run, Tom, run!
 
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