We all know plonking a child down in front of the telly for hours at a time isn’t the best way to help them play or learn.
But can seemingly innocuous cartoons really be damaging our kids’ development?
Recent reports suggest toddlers’ favourite “Peppa Pig” is teaching youngsters to be naughty – with parents on Mumsnet complaining the characters’ cheeky behaviour is being copied by tiny tots.
And fast-paced cartoons such as “SpongeBob SquarePants” have come under fire for creating attention problems, while the likes of “Scooby Doo” and “Ben 10” are said to encourage “risky behaviour”.
So what’s a parent to do?
Can all cartoons really harm development or are there at least some programmes out there that educate and entertain?
The truth is that the research is mixed and opinions vary.
Most frequently it depends on the age of the child and the style of cartoon.
Leading psychologist Dr Aric Sigman argues no child under two should watch TV and those between three and 12 should be limited to no more than an hour-and-a-half a day.
He claims there has been a “significant increase” in children using “confrontational behaviour” they have picked up from cartoons.
And he adds: “There is nothing special about ‘Peppa Pig’ ‑ the same applies to all programmes.”
The American Academy of Paediatrics agrees that “educational” programmes for under-twos are a waste of time and can even slow speech development.
The implication appears to be that the likes of “Sesame Street” infant spin-off “Sesame Tree” or CBeebies’ “Baby Jake”, “Waybuloo” and “In the Night Garden” are unsuitable entertainment for babies.
Yet on the flipside there is significant research behind the creation of such baby-targeted programmes and other independent studies suggest they are beneficial to child development.
The “Teletubbies” and “In the Night Garden” were both created to make children “smile and laugh” and feel reassured, thus increasing their confidence and allowing them to have fun with language.
And “Sesame Street” was made in the 1960s with the help of a Professor of Developmental Psychology, Gerald S Lesser.
Its express aim was to prepare young children for school through social competence, tolerance of diversity and non-aggressive ways of resolving conflict, as well as cognitive goals such as speech.
Indeed, studies over generations suggest the show has positive educational effects: last year, children watching foreign language versions of “Sesame Street” in Indonesia and Tanzania were shown to improve significantly in literacy, maths, safety knowledge and social awareness.
As for “Teletubbies”, one academic study described it as a good example of a programme that attracts high levels of active attention (“with singing, dancing, pointing, imitating behaviours, speaking back to the television”) rather than passive entertainment.
And the likes of “Blue’s Clues” and “Dora the Explorer” on Nickelodeon Junior, which encourage participation, label objects and invite children to respond, have been positively related to expressive language production and vocabulary.
British child psychologist Dr Anne Sheppard insists: “Some programmes, like ‘Teletubbies’ and ‘Sesame Street’, can have a real educational benefit.
“Of course, children should not be plonked in front of the television for hours on end, but using it as an electronic babysitter for half an hour when there is a suitable programme on is fine.”
Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University Early Learning Project, Dr Rachel Barr, adds that talking young children through what is on-screen is key to boosting their understanding and making television a more active, participatory medium.
But there do remain concerns about more frenetic and violent types of cartoon.
Last year a University of Washington study suggested four-year-olds who watched just nine minutes of the fast-paced children’s cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” did worse afterwards at tasks requiring focus and self-control than children who watched a slow-paced cartoon and others who entertained themselves with crayons.
A spokesman for the show, however, disputed the findings and said “SpongeBob” was targeted at six to 11-year-olds, not toddlers of four.
Other experts say cartoons featuring violent acts, such as explosions, gunfights and death, can desensitise young children to violence because the events occur in extreme situations with no consequences.
“Parents have been socialised to think cartoon violence is harmless, but it’s not,” says researcher Dr Dimitri Christakis.
“Speaking broadly, the link between on-screen violence and subsequent violent behaviour is as strong as evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.”
“Power Rangers”, “Star Wars”, “Spider Man” and even “Looney Toons” ‑ teaching children that violence is funny ‑ were all prime culprits, the studies said.
And Dr Karen Pfeffer, a senior lecturer at Lincoln University, agrees that children (particularly boys) who watch programmes featuring risky behaviour ‑ such as “Scooby Doo” and “Ben 10” ‑ are more likely to engage in risky behaviour and injure themselves.
On the plus side, however, gentler cartoons such as “Sesame Street” and “Barney” were not found to increase bad behaviour.
As Dr Christakis adds: “The news here is not all bad. This points out that parents must be informed and very selective when making media choices for their children.” -