Why Hey Arnold!, SpongeBob, And Other Kid Cartoons Might Be The Self-Care You Need

By Kim Hoyos

I get to my bedroom, grab a snack, and curl up in bed to watch some Hey Arnold. The theme song starts to play as I lay back and gear up for another familiar adventure. Arnold will probably save his friends from some neighborhood bully by finding a way to humanize them. Helga will still be in love with Arnold but not tell him. Grandpa Phil will always try to teach Arnold a lesson in a weird but sweet way. I know how the episode will end, and yet, I’m still excited to see how the kids of P.S. 118 solve their problems. It’s 2019, I’m 23, and I still watch kid cartoons.

Watching TV is a way to escape into another world — even for just a half hour. As a kid, the reasons to watch cartoons as a form of entertainment were obvious: They’re marketed toward you with toys, apparel, books, snacks, decor, and more. But as a young adult, those marketing techniques don’t totally apply. So why can’t I shake my seemingly childish taste in television?

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As adults, there are cartoons specifically created for us. From Big Mouth to Family Guy, adult cartoons have been a formidable genre for years, combining the creativity of the brightly colored make-believe with the heavier themes of life after puberty, like mental health or toxic relationships. Unlike kid cartoons, the characters in adult cartoons may not always find a solution to their issues or beat their world’s evil — in fact, as in Rick and Morty, the main character may be the villain. Adult cartoons are entertaining, but what they offer is just so different from their childlike counterpart.

Kid cartoons, meanwhile, explore the world through optimism and friendship, even when the main character is facing challenges. Unbound by the physical limitations of live-action shows, cartoons employ an endless supply of adventure and creativity to freely take the story wherever it needs to go. There’s a sense of unbridled wonder watching Ginger Foutley navigate her first serious crushes while also rushing to finish poetry assignments, avoid her brother’s science projects, and still keep up with her best friends. And trust me, you’ll find yourself laughing at hidden jokes even on the episodes you’ve seen already. Watching kid cartoons is a sweet, simple fun that always hits the spot — and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

But even though it’s increasingly common to question the collective maturity level of the younger generations, the reality is that gravitating toward sweetness and nostalgia over real-world heaviness doesn’t indicate anyone’s level of intelligence or emotional depth. We live in an age where the 24/7 news cycle is dominated by Trump’s antics, gun violence, and constant tragedy, and an influx of information is hurled at us via endless notifications, updates, and posts. Watching kid cartoons for comfort may not consciously seem like the self-care we’ve now become used to plucking off of shelves, ordering from subscription services, or tracking on our phone, but that’s basically what it is: taking the time to do something nice for yourself just for the sake of your own well-being.

Television is, at its essence, entertainment, a way to relax. It’s not meant to always require all the brain power we can muster. When I watch Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! I’m not expecting to uncover some greater truth about humanity. I’m watching because I love those meddling kids and their mischievous dog. I’m not watching Phineas and Ferb to pay off my student loans faster; I’m watching because I know those kids are somehow going to escape the wrath of their older sister and it’s hilarious every time. They’re shows I can count on to put me in a good mood.

“Through escapism and fantasy, we can rest and recharge the creativity in our brain and it just helps us reset our priorities in own own reality,” says Nathaniel Cilley, LMHC, a NYC-based mental health counselor and life coach who specializes in anxiety. He contends that cartoons won’t solve all of our problems, but “it can have its place” in helping us unwind. “The newer generation and younger millennials are holding onto a lot of positives of childhood, and just because it can seem different, I don’t think it’s scary or negative. I think it’s therapeutic.”

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More than being therapeutic, NYC-based mental health counselor Diego Muñoz adds that kid cartoons can be part of a healthy “entertainment diet” at any age. “Some entertainment can speak to the human condition and not be simplistic, while other forms are meant to be superficial,” he said. “If people are able to balance their entertainment diet, they can have a better perspective on their life and the world.”

Essentially, Muñoz encourages all of us to find our own way to decompress from the harsh realities most adult media explores, and sees the wholesome innocence of kid cartoons as one way to do that. Did the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale leave you reeling? Perhaps an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants can help set you straight. And that’s not a maturity indicator; that’s a human indicator. People are inherently dynamic and make choices based on what suits their life best. By watching what you want to watch despite what others might think, you’re setting yourself up for a well-rounded, worldly perspective.

And it’s reaffirming to watch shows whose main lessons are about how to be a good friend or how to stay true to yourself. Watching kid shows reminds me that we were once all stumbling, trying to understand the world, and in many ways we still are. With these cartoons, there’s safety in the fact that, at the end of the episode, everyone is OK and the good character prevails. That’s something that can’t be said about real life when our friendships hit a rough patch or our career isn’t quite where it could be. With their gentle reminders of life’s earliest lessons, kid cartoons not only have the ability to shape the world of a child, but to help adults understand themselves in truly incredible ways.

It might mean my Hulu history sometimes resembles that of a 6-year-old, but in the end, I know who I am and what I love, and that includes a distinct appreciation for a marathon of all my animated faves. If professionals consider watching kid cartoons to be therapeutic, then Hilda or Kim Possible can shamelessly live side-by-side with “mature” practices like face masks and meditation apps. Adulthood constantly confronts us with new challenges to overcome, and the ways we cope with those growing pains are many. Sometimes, all I need is 22 minutes of sweet refuge.

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