SpongeBob Squarepants and other cartoon characters

Bioethics Forum Essay

SpongeBob, Slime, and Brain Injuries: A Dangerous Combination for Kids

For the first time, this year’s Super Bowl will have an alternate telecast. The target audience is children: the NFL has teamed up with CBS and Nickelodeon on a broadcast presented by beloved cartoon characters, notably the cast of SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Plankton, and undersea augmented reality jellyfish will also make appearances. To the NFL, bringing this kid-friendly approach to tackle football to a large audience of children is a cause for celebration. “Our previous telecasts on Nickelodeon have been huge hits and created a new and different way to experience an NFL game,” said NFL media executive vice president Hans Schroeder in a statement. “We’re excited to bring that creativity to Super Bowl 58 and give our fans another way to enjoy one of the world’s most popular sporting events.”

But as public health researchers, we are alarmed by efforts to promote the full-body collisions of tackle football to young children with animated mascots, enhanced augmented reality, bright colors, 3D iconography, and other child-friendly symbols. These broadcasts minimize the health hazards of tackling, particularly the dangers of brain injuries. Moreover, young children do not have the cognitive ability to understand or evaluate the risks.

With increasing research on the long-term effects of brain injuries, youth sports organizations have implemented concussion protocols and return-to-play guidelines to protect children from repeated head impacts. Public health agencies have developed training courses to help coaches, trainers, and others involved in youth sports learn how to recognize and respond to concussions. But at a time when we know how important it is to teach everybody involved in youth sports to take brain injuries seriously, these Nickelodeon broadcasts do just the opposite.

Perhaps most egregiously, in 2021, one NFL Playoffs on Nickelodeon announcer told child viewers that the forceful head collision they had just seen on TV was just like scraping their knees during recess. “You get banged up; you get back up, and you go out there and play another down.” Directly instructing children to keep on playing after hitting their heads and getting “banged up” is precisely the opposite of what they should do: stop playing and tell a grown-up so they can get checked out. As Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation said, “The NFL Nickelodeon broadcast sent an incredibly dangerous message to children on what to do after hitting their head; this advice has literally gotten children killed.”

Even when announcers aren’t telling children that they can ignore brain injuries, the animations involved in these Nickelodeon broadcasts implicitly send the same dangerous message. The funny sound effects, vibrant colors, and entertaining animations that appear when players collide or hit the ground all combine to convey the impression that these hits are amusing and harmless. Superimposing these appealing graphics on real-life collisions is inherently deceptive to young children.

When it comes to other health risks, we’ve recognized the importance of protecting children from misleading messages about public health hazards. Perhaps most famously, in 1997, the Federal Trade Commission charged tobacco company R. J. Reynolds with violating federal law by using a cartoon character, Joe Camel, to appeal to children under age 18. This led tobacco companies to cease using Joe Camel and other similar cartoon mascots in their cigarette advertising campaigns. Disney has placed restrictions on advertisements for junk food aimed at children. And although numerous loopholes still need to be addressed, the food and beverage industry’s Children’s Food and Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) is similarly intended to place limits on the marketing of unhealthy foods to young viewers. In fact, young children under age 8 are so vulnerable to marketing that an American Psychological Association task force advised restricting all television advertising during programming targeted toward this age group.

Yet no such restrictions are in place on how the NFL and Nickelodeon portray the repeated, full-body collisions of tackle football. Given our knowledge of the health hazards of brain trauma, particularly for developing brains, regulations must be set up to prevent the celebration or “cartoonizing” of the most dangerous impacts. Programming for young children should not include slime and dancing animations when players hit the ground or each other, or any other scenarios that place athletes at high risk of brain injury from impact.

The NFL should consult with health professionals to create guidelines that prevent the misrepresentation of brain injury risks in all broadcasts aimed at children, including both visual depictions and how announcers call the plays. No football broadcasts, let alone programs targeting young children, should describe hits to the head as a minor injury that players can simply “bounce back” from.

And if CBS, Nickelodeon, and the NFL want to promote kid-centered football, they should take the lead in celebrating the excitement and fun of flag football. The NFL has begun to host flag football championships at Pro Bowl games and has developed several initiatives to encourage flag football among youth. The NFL could build on these efforts and collaborate on applying state-of-the-art graphics to flag football in its telecasts aimed at kids. When developing programming for young children, media broadcasters should emphasize noncollision sports and stop glorifying high-risk collisions that place athletes at risk for brain trauma. That would be a win for public health.

Kathleen Bachynski, PhD, MPH, is an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College and author of No Game for Boys to Play: The History of Youth Football and the Origins of a Public Health Crisis. She is a volunteer member of the professional advisory board of Pink Concussions, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more research on concussions among girls and women. LinkedIn: Kathleen Bachynski ba

Asher Clissold is a Master’s of Public Health student at Boston University School of Public Health who has researched and presented on the NFL’s marketing of football to youth. LinkedIn: Asher Clissold  

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