The Spongebob Effect: Immorality and Commercial Children’s Television Programming

I spent the weekend with a gang — yes, a Gang! — of rowdy nine-year-olds from the Midwest.  I was shocked — yes, Shocked! — and disappointed by their crassness, overt sarcasm and apt insensitivity to those around them, and I blame antisocial, for-profit, children’s television programming for the damning result.

When I asked one of the parents why these kids were so nonchalantly, but heavily, insulting each other throughout the day, I was told, “It’s the Spongebob Effect.”  The kids watch Spongebob Squarepants all day long and that’s what they take away from the show:  Cruelty and insult.

I looked at the parent in question and asked, “So why do you let your kids watch Spongebob if it is leaking immorality into their lives?”

“I think it’s a funny show,” was the dead-faced, deadpan, reply, “I can’t stand the purple dinosaur, but Spongebob, I can watch, too.”

“So it’s about your convenience and not you child’s socio-psychological welfare?”

“It’s just a TV show,” was the scolded retort.  Conversation over.

It is dangerous to mix adult humor for reception by young minds because it creates a confusing devil’s brew for the young, the immature, and the inexperienced.  What is real?  What is appropriate?  Do we really want Spongebob teaching our children how to interact with the world around them?

“The Simpsons” is another anarchic, human anathema of a for-profit “children’s show” that actually preaches immorality enrobed in “humor” for easier kid consumption.  Do we really want Bart Simpson’s morality to be the morality bred in the home?

The current staple of immoral children’s programming is only following what was broadcast before, and I know “The Three Stooges” is just as confusing to the child’s mind of proper behavior today as it was when the movie shorts first appeared in the 1950’s.  Real life “Stooges” Eye-gouging was such a big problem back then that Moe Howard had to go on television to teach kids it wasn’t real, it was more like a movie “magic trick.”  Even then, sixty years ago, the parenting of children was left to television stars.

When I was a kid, professional “wrestling” was really big on Saturday morning television.  We admired and imitated the moves of good guys Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne as well as baddies like The Iron Sheik and Baron “The Iron Claw” Von Raschke and, of course, meanie manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan:

One weekend, we were having a slumber party at my house, and we all started playing AWA — The American Wrestling Association — and wrestled each other.

We put each other in headlocks that actually choked, scissor leg locks that actually squeezed you hard enough to vomit, and pile drivers where bare heads were impaled against concrete floors.  It was dangerous.  It was stupid.  It was immoral — and yet we were only imitating what was set before our eyes on television.  It took one kid actually getting his head cracked open to wake us up to the fact that what we were doing was real, and had severe consequences, and that what we were watching on television was fake.  We were all of ten years old.

If we hope to raise moral children, we need to teach them the difference between reality and realism and comedy and comity.  If we abandon our children to the Boob Tube, then we are only asking for what we get in return:  Mocking, uncivilized behavior, and contempt for the adult world swirling around them encapsulated in flashes of confusing memes, random advertising memos and directed, but unrealistic, expectations of behavior based on their unlimited exposure to commercial children’s television programming.

13 comments

  • David,

    I don’t even think of The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, etc as actual kid shows — hence their prime time slots. Spongebob, however, has no reason to be as cruel as he is. That’s why my kids won’t be watching his rude behavior. :)

    • Gordon! “The Simpsons” is a kid’s show. It’s on at 8pm on Sunday night during prime family television time. There are Simpson dolls and Halloween costumes and tons of other stuff. If those products aren’t intended for sale to children, then who, or what, is the intended audience?

      • Adults. Dexter has dolls for sale but that show isn’t for children.

        That’s my take. I could be wrong, of course.

        • Dexter is not a children’s show and not intended as such by any stretch.

          How do you explain all the Simpsons toys ephemera if their main target — confessed or not — isn’t children?

          • Great question, David. I know that a lot of adults — myself included — buy toys — especially well crafted toys that are meant to be admired more than played with. I know that when I watch the show on occasion I usually think to myself, “Kids would not get that reference.”

            This blogger asks if The Simpsons can make kids fat. Interesting points.

            http://www.healthkicker.com/707558274/watching-the-simpsons-can-make-kids-fat/

          • Gordon!

            That link you provide undermines your entire argument! How can The Simpsons make kids fat if they aren’t watching the show?

            Here’s the source article your link mentions:

            A study found that boys who tune in to “The Simpsons” while eating pizza ate more — 228 calories more — than boys who didn’t watch TV at all, reports Toronto’s Globe and Mail.

            It’s all because watching TV distracts kids from “recognizing satiety and satiation signals,” researchers said, even if they’ve had a snack beforehand.

            The findings help explain the rising obesity rate among children — North American kids spend between 14 and 20 hours a week watching TV.

          • David,

            That link was more of a side note — a ‘here are other people talking about the simpsons and kids’.

            In truth, I did watch The Simpsons as a teen. I don’t know if that still qualifies as being a kid but in 1990 The Simpsons was a bit of a different show than it is now. Hmm.

            Maybe it’s not made for kids but they watch it anyhow? Would you say that The Family Guy is geared towards children?

          • Gordon —

            I think the Simpsons is intended for kids, but the producers won’t admit it. Their invasive selling of the brand to children confirms that. Adults aren’t looking to wear size 9 Simpsons Halloween costumes.

            Family Guy is pretty offensive. A dog who explicitly sexually lusts after his female owner? Umm… gross. It is on early enough for children to watch — but I think the intention of the producers of that show is not to purposefully cater to kids.

  • Having a house full of kids and grand kids for a few weeks now, we’ve been subjected to what they’ve been watching. Some of the characters I cannot even tell what they are meant to be, one character was smoking a pipe!

    I think Simpsons isn’t too bad for them, Family Guy I don’t think is appropriate.

    Then my step-son lets his kids watch Japanese Anime and R rated horror movies. But I had to put my foot down, “my house my rules”, and stop them watching what I felt was inappropriate, what’s wrong with Tom & Jerry I ask? Oh wait, then they’ll be running around bashing each other.
    I have a big problem with the grand kids cussing and calling me a mofo, because their Dad lets them get away with it, I have to discipline him and the kids.

    As I remember, kids shows when I was young seemed very benign.

    • Hi Mik!

      I’m glad you’re doing the Uber Parenting role that is missing — let’s hold thumbs some of it sticks when you aren’t around to enforce it.

      Yes, Tom and Jerry was definitely a violent show and “Itchy and Scratchy” on the Simpsons mocks that cartoon.

      Bugs Bunny, I think, had a smart mouth, but he never set out to hurt anyone. Everyone was trying to kill him — not a great modeling recipe for child morality, though — and yet he always found a way to turn their hatred and anger against them.

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