7 February 2023

No, singing cartoon babies are not a danger to society


Kids have terrible taste, and nowhere is this more evident than in their affection for CoComelon. For those fortunate enough to have avoided this cultural phenomenon, it’s a YouTube Channel where bug-eyed, candy-coloured creatures regurgitate irritating nursery rhymes. The crudeness of the animation and the piercing repetitiveness of the vocals have made it a huge hit with toddlers all over the world and attracted 153m subscribers. I don’t let my daughter watch it because it’s aesthetically offensive and, well, snobbery has to start somewhere.

But there are those who go further and claim it is actively ‘dangerous’. In an article in The Times yesterday Faraz Osman, the chairman of Bafta’s children’s advisory committee responded to reports that BBC has signed a deal with CoComelon’s parent company to feature its output on iPlayer, saying we ‘risk leaving our kids unsupervised as they feed themselves low-quality, unhealthy, addictive and at times dangerous content’.

I’m no fan of these grating cartoons, but the suggestion that they are ‘addictive’ is a little far-fetched. Come back to me if today’s three-year-olds are still stuck watching these shows when they’re 50, having ruined their lives with a £200 a day CoCo habit.

Of course every parent worries about what their child is watching. Lockdown has provided ample evidence that too much TV can have negative effects on a child’s development, with Ofsted finding a significant increase in delays to language development following the pandemic. But this is surely a consequence of screen time replacing social interaction and time spent outdoors, rather than of the content itself. I am sceptical that the outcomes for the most vulnerable children without gardens, barred from school and isolated from friends would be notably different if they were watching more edifying shows.

And let’s be honest, entertainment for under-5s is never going to be highbrow. Those lamenting the decline of public service kids’ TV should pause to examine the motivations behind their reasoning. Osman, for example, is a producer of CBeebies’ What’s On Your Head?, which ‘explores why people wear different headgear in various jobs, cultures and sports’. According to The Times he, ‘fears that such programming could be swept away as viewing habits shift’. It’s a programme about hats – would it really be such a great loss (except, of course, to Osman himself)?

Then there’s Oli Hyatt, managing director of the firm that makes CBeebies’ Alphablocks, who has met with the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport to discuss Ofcom data showing that investment in children’s programming by terrestrial broadcasters has fallen from £195m to £69m in 2021. Again, it is clear why these figures are a concern for someone whose income depends on a public subsidy, but should the rest of us care?

The idea that funding constraints have caused a reduction in the overall quality of content available to children is not credible. The BBC still makes wholesome and visually imaginative shows like Bluey and Hey Duggee that are popular with children and parents, and commercially successful. Given the big profits to be made from children’s entertainment – animated films like Frozen and Toy Story gross over $1bn – we should really be asking why these production companies need any taxpayer money at all. Policymakers’ time would be better spent reforming our grotesquely expensive childcare system and inadequate housing so fewer parents had to use the TV as a babysitter.

This CoComelon melodrama is yet another example of what John Ashmore has described on these pages as a culture of ‘safetyism’, where perceived threats are inflated as an excuse for ever more state intervention. We don’t yet know what the impact of streaming technology may be on brain development, but history does show that every generation of parents worries about cultural changes they didn’t experience when they were growing up. But standing in the way of progress with meddlesome regulation and endless demands for public money isn’t the answer.

Parents should trust their instincts and if, like me, you despise the brain-melting vacuity of CoComelon, switch it off and take your kids outside (or watch Bluey instead, I’m not here to tell you what to do).

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.