Is Disney is Really Ruining Her Kid? A Neuroscience Perspective

I noticed changes in my kids too. My oldest was 8 at the time. She started talking back, and making off hand comments about everything. She started to hate her siblings. Calling them stupid, etc. I discontinued the Disney channel. But the damage had already been done. I have been spending the last ten years trying to undo the damage by having to repeatedly remind her about being respectful, kind to others, and not throwing a bad attitude.

This comment left by aisha in response to “Disney is ruining my kid,”- a recent blog post on IndeedIAm, exemplifies a growing sentiment towards Disney programming. The post has received attention on both sides of the ongoing debate over Disney’s influence on young minds.  The author, a mother of two girls, is surprised by the effect the Disney channel, and in particular shows such as A.N.T Farm, Kickin’ it! and Good Luck Charlie, is having on her daughters. This article explores whether this effect is real from a neuroscience perspective. It also explores whether Disney is simply a product of an entertainment culture that has lost its ethical bearing and whether it is reasonable to expect entertainment to support the healthy development of today’s children.

Image by Moritz Petersen © Some Rights Reserved

With demands on our time increasingly coming from multiple places (e.g., work, social, family) we inevitably become less aware of the exact nature of the content that our children are exposed to on a daily basis. In this case, despite her best efforts to be an informed parent, the Disney Channel programming appears to be responsible for perceptible changes in her girls’ attitudes and behavior at school. In particular, the mother notes specific changes in communication, personality and empathy in her daughters. The author suggests a not-so-subtle connection between Disney’s treatment of delicate adolescent situations and the deterioration of empathy in her daughter’s behavior and disconnect with social norms.

An obvious question to ask is: why did this mom trust Disney’s programming in the first place? Perhaps, she based this trust on her childhood perceptions of Disney. In reality, like all things, the Disney brand has evolved tremendously since the 1950’s. Disney Channel Worldwide now includes a global portfolio of over 100 “kid-driven”, family inclusive entertainment channels and/or channel feeds available in 169 countries/territories, in 35 languages. In addition, Disney Channel properties continue to rapidly expand into new markets across the world, playing a key role in introducing the Disney brand to over 600 million unduplicated viewers[i]. This is no longer the quaint home-grown small-business that introduced the American public and the world to Mickey Mouse. Indeed, Disney has evolved and perhaps our perception of the brand and its content should evolve as well. So why is there this disconnect? Opinions abound but there appears to be a consensus around that notion that Disney’s programming is no longer as “kid-friendly” as it once used to be.

What others are saying

In fact, as of May 2014, the post had received over 600[CG2]  responses with a majority (64%) of respondents agreeing strongly with the core premise that Disney’s current programming appears to be having a less than desirable influence on how young people see the world. One commenter plainly suggested that Disney’s current programming “teaches kids [that being] cruel and vain is hilarious” while another was clearly disturbed by a Good Luck Charlie episode that “involved the boy making fat jokes at the dad while he just stood there and took it. 1 – fat jokes, really? 2 – mocking your father, not okay. 3 – no consequences, just that infernal laugh track.”

Disney Chart

While a subset of responses (21%) seemed to acknowledge some changes, they were less certain about how impactful these changes actually are. A vocal minority (15%) of respondents clearly disagreed with the author’s core premise. These respondents either saw Disney’s programming as still fundamentally wholesome and age-appropriate or admitted that the programming has gone through an evolution but that the ultimate responsibility to form young minds lies with the parents and not with Disney.  There seems to be near consensus that Disney has fundamentally changed. The question is now what does this mean for the relationship between Disney, today’s generation, and their parents?

A quick internet search reveals a myriad of website, blogs and articles speaking to this very issue. The copious amount of articles dedicated to the so-called “princess-effect” underlines the deep concerns some people have about Disney’s promotion of unhealthy body images, lack of self-reliance and gender stereotypes to young children, especially young girls. Academics have even written books on Disney’s evolution and its cultural implications. One such book by renowned professor Dr. Henry A. Giroux “The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence presents independent research, facts and statistics in an excellent examination of this topic. Giroux concludes his analysis with a final synopsis:

“Disney’s view of children as consumers has little to do with innocence and a great deal to do with corporate greed and the realization that behind the vocabulary of family fun and wholesome entertainment is the opportunity to teach children that critical thinking and civic action in society should be far less important to them than assuming the role of passive consumers”.

A Neuroscience Perspective

One aspect of this debate that receives relatively little attention is the underlying neuroscience, particularly of developing adolescent brains, and what role this may play in shaping attitudes and perceptions.

Our understanding of the developing brain, and factors that influence it, has developed tremendously in the last decade. Recent studies have suggested correlations between the size, structure and activity level of various parts of the brain to the likelihood of mental disease, criminal behavior, anxiety and other conditions. Recent findings have even connected the diet of pregnant mothers to subtle changes in embryonic DNA, showing for the first time direct evidence for environmental factors playing a role at the earliest and most basic levels of human development.

Conditioning, both classical and operant, is a fundamental tenant of neuroscience and psychology that relates both physical and mental changes to repeated environmental stimuli. In more extreme cases conditioning plays a role in conditions like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which all result in measurable changes to brain chemistry and behavior. Add to the mix natural developmental changes, hormone levels, and changing bodies and it is increasingly complex picture of factors that affect adolescent behavior begins to take shape. While a distinct link between Disney programming and brain chemistry is difficult to make, its role in conditioning of developing brains through repeated exposure is undeniable – the extent to which observable changes occur is likely heavily dependent on what other stimuli are present and individual traits.

In terms of early-stage brain development it is largely acknowledged that by the age of 3, a baby’s brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size[ii]. The growth in each region of the brain largely depends on receiving stimulation, which spurs activity in that region. This stimulation provides the foundation for learning and growth in the later years.

Right before puberty, adolescent brains experience a growth spurt that occurs mainly in the frontal lobe, which is the area that governs planning, impulse control, and reasoning. As a child grows into its teen years, typically ages 6-14 (the stated target audience of Disney programming), the brain develops more myelin, a fatty deposit, to insulate the nerve fibers and speed neural processing.

This myelination process occurs last in the frontal lobe which means that other areas of the brain are more susceptible to shaping by environmental influence and less so by logical thought and personal empathy; factors which form the basis of what we call emotional maturity.  At the same time, the teenage brain reaches maturity in the areas that govern speech and sensory capabilities. Thus, the major difference between the teenage and adult brain is immaturity of the frontal lobe and the myelination of that area.

Another change that occurs during adolescence is the growth and transformation of parts of the brain that are collectively referred to as the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions. Teenagers may rely on their more primitive limbic system in interpreting emotions and reacting, since they lack the more mature cortex that can override the limbic response. This region of the brain has also been shown to be quite sensitive to dopamine, the chemical associated with happiness and reward, and shares a strong connection to the frontal cortex. This connection is thought to be at the core of why problem solving and logical reasoning appear to provide positive feelings and a sense of harmony.

In the young adolescent brain however, this link is only just developing. In fact, the release of dopamine can also be triggered by other factors including laughing, seeing others laughing, a feeling of accomplishment and other perhaps seemingly more simple factors like a smile, a nice looking dress or a happy ending. Could it be that this is why canned background laughter makes it ok for young kids to laugh at a not-so-nice prank played on a Disney character’s dad?

Or, could the stories filled with not-so-subtle deprecation be a means to elicit a quick happy high to a young viewer without appealing to any higher-level reasoning or empathic ability. After all, Disney’s corporate goals are to maintain viewership and it is definitely much easier (and cheaper) to develop repetitive canned-laughter-based programming rather than invest in well thought out cohesive storylines that engage their viewer’s higher-level cognitive abilities or at least contribute to their development.

To Disney or Not

Now there are certainly two sides to this debate. One cannot deny that there are aspects of these shows that teach our youth about social norms, compassion and dealing with others. In some cases, kids are exposed to fundamentally worse conditions at home or are witness to much crueler human interaction from the adults around them. Does Disney not offer the chance for these youth to learn from generally positive stories and provide a basis for dealing with others in a more constructive way?

On the other hand, a large number of parents, educators, and caregivers believe that Disney’s programming adversely affects children, and much of this is based on first hand knowledge in homes, classrooms, and playgrounds. The neuroscience suggests that the young mind is particularly vulnerable to environmental stimuli in the development and shaping of emotional maturity. This is especially true when the programming coming from content creators appeals to the most basic of levels of emotional processing.

It should also be noted that this is not a phenomenon that is isolated to Disney alone. Much of today’s TV programming has followed a similar a trajectory. Next time you sit down to watch your favorite comedy listen carefully for the canned laughter – would that scene have been as funny otherwise? The real questions are: do these content producers, including Disney, have an appreciation for how their content impacts their viewership? Do they have a responsibility to care?

Given what we now know about brain development, should these factors play a role in what shows are aired and how stories are crafted? These are certainly not the conversations taking place in today’s corporate boardrooms where profitability, diversification and viewer retention reign supreme.

While it may be increasingly clear that Disney and other similar corporations continue to shape young minds in increasingly questionable ways, the responsibility for the development of educated, emotionally mature and productive members of society can hardly be placed squarely on the their shoulders. These are ultimately symptoms of a larger societal shift that cannot be addressed by targeting any single entity. After all, corporations such as Disney and its competitors are driven by market demand; as long as kids are watching and they can continue selling advertising, they will continue producing more of the same. Neutering Disney would simply create a market opportunity for its competitors.

To truly see a shift in what kids watch, the culture and ultimately what we value will need to change. That starts with supporting children’s entertainment that is aligned with our values and that support the healthy development of today’s kids. It’s a story as old as time and almost makes for a great movie, the kind that is interesting and engaging enough on its own without the need for canned-laughter to make it entertaining.



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