Children’s media is intended to entertain children and, hopefully, teach them some basic lessons about life at the same time. Some children’s shows put a great deal of emphasis on teaching children academic topics like vocabulary and mathematics. Other children’s media choose to focus on social skills and lessons—such as how to behave via displaying manners and respect. There is nothing particularly new or innovative about children’s media that uses characters to talk about real and serious issues, but some programs certainly convey these lessons in better ways than others. One show that was truly exemplary at discussing serious topics was “Hey Arnold.”
“Hey Arnold” was a cartoon that was broadcast on the children’s television networked known as Nickelodeon (home of the “Kids Choice Award,” see video) from the years 1996-2004. “Hey Arnold” focused on the adventures of a nine-year-old boy named Arnold who lived in an urban environment with his grandparents in their boarding house. Each episode was plotted around a problem that faced Arnold, his classmates or his boarding house neighbors. On the surface, “Hey Arnold” seems like merely another situation comedy cartoon yet the show was regarded as special—even breakthrough—due to the depth it brought to its characters.
Nearly every single character on “Hey Arnold” has an interesting backstory and some of the aspects to their lives are oddly dark and tragic for a children’s show. For example, one of the main characters is Helga, a bully who is cruel to others due to her own terrible home life involving negligent parents. Similarly, a boarding house neighbor has a tragic past stemming from the war in his native Vietnam which he escaped as a young man. Other characters deal with issues such an anxiety, insecurity and unhealthy relationships like unhappy marriages. There is recurring suggestion that Arnold’s grandmother has dementia (although this is generally depicted comically leaving room for speculation that she might be merely eccentric) and there are likewise suggestions of poverty and addiction (in one case, to chocolate) that directly impact character’s lives.
Although all of these elements make the show sound like a bleak drama rather than children’s cartoon comedy, “Hey Arnold” expertly managed to convey these themes in age appropriate ways via excellent writing, fine artwork, and humorous dialogue and visuals. Although many of the plots, scenes, and suggestions were often dark (and surprisingly realistic), the show was regarded as amusing and entertaining—and occasionally emotionally moving—to its viewers.
“Hey Arnold” managed to cover a range of very controversial and serious topics in its eight years on air. However, it always did so in a way that left an impact on children that did not shock or alarm them in a negative way. “Hey Arnold” is an example of how a children’s show can double as a way to educate children about serious social issues, dark spots in history and the psychological effects of people’s surroundings that ultimately affect how they behave towards and treat others. Although “Hey Arnold” is no longer in production, it can still be watched on re-runs or online. It is certainly worth watching since it’s funny, zany and will teach kids seriously deep and philosophical issues in a way that is engaging and relatable to youngsters.