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Tickle U Is No Laughing Matter

By Josh Golin, September, 2005

“I will be very proud if moms treat us as a baby sitter.” - Alice Cahn, Cartoon Network’s Vice President for Programming and Development.

Cartoon Network recently unleashed the latest commercial assault on young children in the form of Tickle U, a two-hour block of preschool programming that will air every weekday. Sadly, there is so much commercial media aimed at young children these days that ten more hours of television per week is hardly news in and of itself. What is new, however, are the claims that Cartoon Network is making about the educational benefits of its programs and how the programming is being marketed.

Cartoon Network maintains Tickle U will help develop a child’s sense of humor. There is no evidence, however, that television aids in humor development. Nor is that an area in which children need a lot of help. As any parent knows, early childhood is not exactly a time devoid of laughter, humor or jokes. According to Dr. Diane Levin, Professor of Early Education at Wheelock College and author of Remote Control Childhood, children’s humor develops from “play and their natural interactions with the world around them.” For Dr. Levin, Tickle U “is a classic case of marketers trying to create a need where none exists and to dupe parents into thinking that watching more TV is good for their children.”

Marketing for Tickle U is particularly egregious because it twists sound child development advice for commercial purposes. Tickle U’s marketing emphasizes the importance of play and humor to a child’s development and claims the programming bucks the recent trend to push kids to excel through structured learning. Yes, play and humor are extremely important to a child’s development. And yes, many educators and child development specialists are increasingly worried about the increased emphasis on structured learning for preschoolers and the academic pressure being placed on children at a younger and younger age. You’d be hard-pressed, however, to find anyone who isn’t a network executive or marketer who thinks the solution is to plop young children in front of the television.

Many parents struggle with the issue of how much television their children should watch – and for good reason. There is increasing evidence that television can be harmful to young children. Television viewing is a factor in childhood obesity.   Research also suggests that preschoolers who are heavy television viewers score lower on academic and intelligence tests later in life and are more likely to have attention difficulties. Thus when the Cartoon Network tells parents to lighten up and turn on the TV because it’s good for kids – a network executive calls the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under two not watch any television “impractical” – it’s not only deceptive, it’s dangerous.
Dr. Susan Linn, CCFC’s co-founder, and author of Consuming Kids, notes, “There is growing concern about how much time children spend watching TV.  We should not be fooled by network executives’ claims about the benefits of this commercial venture. Tickle U is just the latest attempt to get young children in front of screens  - which is exactly where marketers want them.” 

Commercials will run throughout Tickle U, including for food of questionable nutritional value (Chuck E. Cheese is already on board) and Disney videos (promoting even more screen time for kids). In addition, there are plans to license Tickle U characters to toys, games, apparel, and food products. 

In order to promote Tickle U to young children, the Cartoon Network is bringing its marketing to places that marketers frankly don’t belong. A number of hospitals around the country have partnered with Cartoon Network to hold Tickle U Lifelong Laughter programs. These events are being promoted as a “celebration of laughter and fun”, but it’s not hard to imagine what the real take home message will be after kids meet the Tickle U characters and leave with DVD’s, branded stickers, and stuffed animals.

And it gets worse. Cartoon Network has partnered with Scholastic and hopes to market Tickle U by sending Tickle U “curricula” to 20,000 preschool teachers.
It’s bad enough when marketers appropriate the language of child development. But when they are assisted in their efforts by trusted institutions that should have children’s best interests at heart, it sends a particularly dangerous message to parents.

If you share the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s concerns about Tickle U, there are a number of things you do:

Become a Tickle U anti-viral marketer. Cartoon Network is enlisting moms as viral marketers to promote Tickle U. In exchange for a Kenneth Cole bag filled with goodies, moms are asked to spread the word about Tickle U to their friends and on blogs and in chat rooms. You too can spread the word - that kids don’t need television to develop a sense of humor and television is potentially harmful to young children. You won’t get a goodie bag – but you will be doing the right thing for kids.

If you see Tickle U being promoted at your local hospital or preschool, ask them to stop. And if you
let us know about it, we’ll ask them to stop too.

We've also launched a major campaign to get Scholastic to end it's partnership with Tickle U. Click
here to tell Scholastic to stop marketing television in preschools.


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