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Tickle U: Is It Selling to Your 2 Year Old?

The constant purveyor of everything animated, Cartoon Network has introduced a new daily series that has garnered an usual amount of press attention. Tickle U isn’t actually a program in itself, but instead is a two-hour block of a variety animated short series, all of which are expressly developed to appeal to the youngest television audience members.

In fact, had the network's PR people not extolled the virtues of using Tickle U as a method for developing a sense of humor in toddlers, there's a good chance these cartoons would disappear under the radar with the dozens of other animated titles cluttering the cable and satellite systems each day. But when a broadcaster targets audience members that still don't have flushing down to fine art, parent groups and other researchers in the area of media and children, sit up and take notice.

And rightly so. There is evidence that indicates no matter how worthwhile a TV program may be, parents need to be especially careful with introducing television into the lives of their youngest children.

Research on brain development shows the first two years of life are critical in the construction of neural architecture within the brain. In other words, unlike the rest of our body's organs, the brain does most of its internal development after we are born. Scientists have determined that our environment plays a primary role in this process.

Interaction with parents and humans, manipulation of environmental elements (like blocks, sand, and other physical items), and creative problem-solving activities are the basis of an essential mental diet at this age. Unfortunately, television, no matter how educational, doesn't offer any of these challenges.

This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to warn parents of children less than two year old, to not use any television with their infants. Parents of children two years and older are advised by the AAP to limit television time to no more than two hours per day.

Conveniently, the Tickle U daily package is two hours long. If you follow these guidelines, after watching the show, you should hit the off button for the rest of the day. (Surprisingly, it appears parents of children this age are doing just that. In a 2003 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, surveyed parents of children 0 to 6 years of age indicated just shy of two hours of "screen media" time was being consumed by their toddlers. Unfortunately, the report also showed 59% of parents were letting children under two watch TV on a daily basis.)

Critics of Tickle U site additional reasons for parents to avoid the daily montage of animation. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) says TV is harmful to young children for a variety of reasons: It plays a factor in childhood obesity and frequent viewing at a young age can lower intelligence test scores and make a child more prone to becoming a bully.

The program is "a cynical ploy to get young children to watch more television," says the organization's website, which is particularly critical of the Cartoon Network's plan to work with hospitals to promote the show as a way of helping young children gain a healthy sense of humor.

"Children don’t need TV to develop a sense of humor.  It comes from play and their natural interactions with the world around them," said Wheelock College Professor, Dr. Diane Levin, author of Remote Control Childhood and a member of the CCFC Steering Committee.

So what can you expect if you turn your TV to this 120 minutes of controversy? I was happy to find some of the most creative animation I've seen in some time. The block contains seven different under-15-minute animations from various companies. Each has a very unique and distinct style that makes for an interesting montage, and shows kids that not all "cartoons" have to look like the typical cheap products they usually find.

Peppa Pig is a series about a pig family, and focuses mainly on their young daughter and her younger brother. Gordon the Garden Gnome is a gentle whimsical look at what gnomes might be up to in your garden. Firehouse Tales has a trio of personified trucks that are all "in training," each hoping to become a real fire truck some day. Possibly the most visually appealing is Little Robots, a 3D animated group of characters made up of scrap metal.

All these "cartoons" are a full cut above the typical animated fare found on elsewhere on the tube. The storylines focus on positive behavior, cooperation, finding friends, and making the best of a bad situation. They also hope to keep adults interested with a "mommy bar"--essentially a CNN-style news ticker at the bottom of the screen that provides parenting advice in the area of developing humor. "Children invent jokes to see how their parents react," says one message. "Heard a good knock-knock joke lately, like 100 times? Children love to repeat jokes. Children love to repeat jokes," offers another.

Personally, I don't think our children are as humor deprived as the Cartoon Network wants us to believe--although I would vouch for there being not enough appropriate humor for children in the media. Yet, keeping the concerns of the AAP in mind, if your child watches any animation programming, this would be a good place to visit--if it wasn't for one thing.

The Cartoon Network has been criticized for setting the bait to pull in even younger viewers for advertisers to sell to. I'd like to say that's not the case, but the quality animation within Tickle U is punctuated with an interesting mix of commercials. The breaks are infrequent (only three within the two hours along with another at the end), but this still feels like too much.

The peaceful tale within Harry and his Bucket Full of Dinosaurs (one of the seven programs) came to a screeching halt when the screen filled with a group of blasting, robotic, Power Rangers who are about to take over the world every Monday on Toon Disney. Next a guy was trying to sell my child a mortgage (obviously, the network has high hopes parents will watch with their children). That was followed by another commercial trying to sell us violent Ninja Turtles. The next break opened with a twenty-something telling me his boss, and everyone else at his company, was a "jerk" (he later wanted to sell me health insurance).

In small doses, along with close parental involvement, Tickle U could be a nice TV time for parent and child. However, if Cartoon Network really wants to provide a service to its youngest viewers, it would select its advertising clients more carefully, or sacrifice the three commercial breaks completely. That would certainly tickle me even more.

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