It was a kindergarten ritual: every day, my older sister and I would race off the bus, run into the kitchen, and switch on the TV. After the long day of dealing with elementary school stresses of drawing five-point stars and writing complete sentences, we had certainly earned a brain break. We munched on our peanut butter covered graham crackers as we tuned in to the daily installments of The Smurfs and Snorks. As I took in the vivid colors of the fantastical worlds of the Smurf village and the ocean floor, I felt pacified. For that hour, there was no need to concentrate on anything beside my snack and the cartoon; outside worries floated away. This method of simply cutting loose for a half hour or so continued throughout my elementary school experience. I was always happy to get a few laughs out of Phineas and Ferb, and I loved being able to watch shows like SpongeBob SquarePants with my cousins at my grandmother’s house.
Even with the dramatically different workload I have today as a college student, there’s still one surefire way I can return to a relaxed headspace after finishing a long assignment—watching a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
This is hardly some sort of unique guilty pleasure. In 2018, about 32% of American adults aged 18-29 tuned into Cartoon Network at least once in the span of a month. In practice, many of my friends in high school were in agreement that children’s cartoons were genuinely hilarious and a simple delight to watch. Even at college, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with any of my new friends about our favorite childhood shows to watch; if you’re lucky, you can occasionally find a tent on the quad where groups of students are viewing cartoons on a projector. Go anywhere on the internet, and you will find that memes and posts are still being made about childhood staples such as Spongebob, Avatar, and Adventure Time.
So why is it that teenagers and adults find so much enjoyment in cartoons geared toward children? Given the variety of animated shows that exist for a more mature audience—like Family Guy, BoJack Horseman, or South Park—it couldn’t be simply for the bright colors and exaggerated emotion of the animated format. What kinds of things are we hoping to gain when we dive into the youthful worlds of cartoons? Why is this experience something to be cherished?
A likely explanation for the continued fondness of children’s cartoons is the nostalgia factor they provide. The inherent positive qualities of works such as TV shows are often enhanced by the memories surrounding the time period in which we first experienced them, such that experiencing the same media years later can release the same emotions from long ago. Krystine Batcho, a psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College, speaks to the mental benefits of inducing nostalgia: “When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting. It’s analogous to a hug from your parent.” Batcho adds that watching nostalgic television is “harkening back to… a [seemingly] simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities, obligations, and worries.” When someone has strong memories of frequently watching a certain TV show in their younger days, watching such a show again as an adult is akin to travelling through time back to those simpler days of childhood. Especially since these cartoon shows were first viewed in relatively comfortable phases of our lives, it can be easy to feel right at home in the worlds depicted in these shows.
Watching these shows is a form of psychological repetition, a sort of ritual or habit that one can rely upon. Most importantly, nostalgia TV, especially in routine, provides an element of predictability into the vastly unpredictable lives of overworked students living through a pandemic. Knowing how a certain story will end or how a certain character will act can provide an anchor that diminishes complexity, allowing for a simple viewing experience free of pressure, mystery, or interpretation. When we watch the same children’s cartoons now that we did many years ago, it is easy to regain the feeling of easy and inconsequential viewing, similar to the context in which we first viewed such shows.
Even removed from the context of nostalgia, children’s cartoons are simply built to provide entertaining and casual viewing, offering a “brain break” from the stressors of a college student’s life. Such cartoons are often labelled as “family shows” because they are made with the intent that parents will sometimes sit down with their kids to watch the show. They must be tailored in a way that there is something to enjoy for viewers of all ages. The narratives of cartoons must be constructed in such a way that they are easy for younger viewers to digest, such as providing a clear good versus evil conflict, as in Avatar, or having a prevailing theme like friendship and compassion, as in Adventure Time. Because of the younger target audience, the themes and lessons are easily gleaned by older viewers and therefore requires less effort to find any sort of meaning from the show. Given how much time students in particular spend analyzing and interpreting perspectives, it’s easy to see why there would be a temptation to be spoon-fed an easy life lesson. The simplicity of such universal themes or stories can often be easier to watch instead of realistic shows with higher emotional stakes which are usually geared toward older audiences.
Thanks to the animated format, there is no limit to creating fantastical worlds, leading to opportune escapism. The real world constantly reminds us of its own limitations, given that we all have an innate sense of what is supposed to be physically or scientifically impossible. This is what makes shows like Spongebob or Adventure TIme so entertaining; they create their own universes that follow their own rules, and they look nearly completely different from our own. They rebel against everything logical that we feel we are supposed to know, entirely removing the viewer from the constraints of the real world and instead drawing them down rabbit holes full of pastel colors and smooth shapes where anything seems to be possible. These worlds manage to provoke a sense of youthful fun while being easy on the eyes. Students often find themselves staring at monotonous black text on white pages as they complete various assignments, so watching colorful cartoons as a reward for the hard work can be a sort of sensory revival, far more than watching a TV show that simply depicts the normal constraints of the real world.
Adding to the sense of escapism is the fact that children’s cartoons are often hilarious in a unique way that is harder for realistic TV shows to achieve. Although the humor remains appropriate for younger audiences the vast majority of the time, the ridiculous premises for many shows often push the boundaries of reality so far that viewers of all ages will most likely get a good chuckle. My favorite example of the elevated comedic premise in a children’s cartoon probably comes from Phineas and Ferb, in which a series’ long subplot involves the blue Perry the Platypus working as a spy in order to thwart Dr. Doofenschmirtz, a mad scientist who projects parental neglect into his plans to conquer the Tristate Area. Writing it out makes it seem silly, and such a story would be a total disaster in a “realistic” TV show with CGI, but it works perfectly in the context of a children’s cartoon, where we are conditioned to believe the unbelievable as long as it leads to laughs.
Zany exaggeration for the sake of humor often shines through in the voice work of children’s cartoons as well. In SpongeBob SquarePants, Spongebob, Patrick Star, Sandy, and Squidward all have distinct, completely unrealistic voices that make even mundane lines funnier than they should be. The line, “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” is a prime example of the type of jokes that children’s cartoons usually produce: goofy, simple, nonsequitur, and nonsensical. While that line in particular manages to be funny on its own, hearing it in Patrick Star’s memorable voice makes it masterfully hysterical. Although this type of obvious humor is certainly geared toward children, it can be just as effective with older audiences who want to laugh at inconsequential and immature jokes.
Teenagers and adults are still enthralled with watching children’s cartoons because such shows appeal to the child within all of us. As we become busier and busier with age, it becomes more tempting to dive back into childhood through nostalgia TV, watching simple and predictable programs that can temporarily transport us to younger days. Children’s cartoons are the perfect vehicle; the ridiculous fantasies and accessible humor leads to casual viewing experiences mostly removed from real life. While adult cartoons can offer similar ridiculous premises and blunt comedy, the supposed simplicity is often mixed with violent humor or dark political satire. Children’s cartoons remain a viable escape from our increasingly complex lives, bringing a dash of youthful simplicity that we sometimes desperately need.