My children, like many, enjoy cartoons. While my wife and I are careful to limit the amount of television they watch, our children still have several shows that they frequent more often than others, including a recent Nickelodeon show titled Paw Patrol.
In this show, a boy named Ryder leads a team of talking pups who have special skills and gear focused in particular areas (e.g., firefighting, recycling, construction). The theme song of this show declares that whenever someone is in trouble, the Paw Patrol will be there “on the double.”
One such helpful canine is named Chase. Originally a police pup who had a megaphone, a net, and a police truck, in the second season of the show, Chase has gained new skills. He can now serve as a Spy Pup, complete with a remote-controlled spy drone. While my children did not flinch when this new element was introduced, I should note that the appearance of this drone has cooled our interest in the show.
The images that we encounter subtly shape our imaginations. We know this in many other areas of our lives. We are concerned about how women are depicted in popular media, and we make sure that children do not view movies and television shows that are intended for adults. But what about the shows that seem to be intended for children. Aren’t they simply entertainment? In other words, after we push aside the advertisements that saturate the show and its intermissions, do we need to ask how children are shaped by children’s shows?
I imagine that Paw Patrol, on first glance, encourages children to be helpers, to find ways to contribute to the betterment of society, and to work as a team whenever possible. Again, as the theme song states, “No job’s too big. No pup’s too small!” These are all qualities that are worthwhile. However, what about that drone? Does it simply contribute to this focus on “helping others”? Also, what about the fact that the pup who controls it does so as part of being a “Spy Pup”?
This is where children’s shows certainly do more than simply entertain, both in Paw Patrol and in other children’s programming. To bring in another show, it matters, for instance, that in the world of Thomas and Friends trains that are designated not to be “useful” (the guiding virtue within the show) are occasionally relegated to a fenced-off yard separate from all other trains. Some trains even worry that they might be broken down into scrap metal if they are not viewed as useful. These observations are important even if the show does not make much of these details aside from depicting them. One does not have to think too hard to see Thomas’s logic of “usefulness” permeating all of society. To return to Paw Patrol, it matters then that a police pup has acquired spy gear and a drone, even if this device is not used as a weapon.
The children who watch Paw Patrol (trust me on this one) describe the drone as part of the assistance that Chase provides; it is not a dangerous tool that this pup wields. In fact, Chase has used the drone to find people and pups who are lost. To the untrained eye, his drone is no more dangerous than the drones sold as toys in consumer electronic stores.
And yet, drones are not simply ideas or even objects without meaning. Instead, they are objects with tremendous power and weight in our world, and for many people, they are not helpful. In fact, they are terrifying precisely because they find people. In places such as Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and even along the U.S.-Mexico border, these devices are a constant presence, patrolling the skies and exercising force whenever requested. These drones form imaginations as well, but not like any children’s show. This alternate formation changes how residents of these regions see and inhabit the world.
It is certainly true that the missiles remotely fired from these devices in the sky endanger far more than those who are targeted. According to one report in late 2014, drone strikes killed 2800% more people than those targeted. This is a serious concern, but there is also the psychological shaping of the perceived constant presence of drones above one’s head, and it is beyond disturbing.
Because these devices are undetectable to the naked eye even on a cloudless day, residents of these areas where drone use is prevalent have been shaped to have different views concerning the weather. They express fear at a clear sky and delight when it is overcast. In 2013, a 13-year-old Pakistani boy named Zubair spoke to Congress, stating, “Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. . . . Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school.” Think about that for a moment: my children are happy when the sky is clear because they are able to play outside; these children fear a blue sky and welcome a grey one. This is the formation of drones clearly on display.
The use of drones should be seen as a significant moral issue by Christians. We declare that Jesus loves all the little children, but there are children who live in terror of something that my children can see and enjoy in a cartoon. Because I hope to raise children who care for all people on the planet, Paw Patrol’s seemingly harmless depiction of drones becomes deeply troubling in this light.
Further, Chase’s new role of “Spy Pup” only makes matters worse since this fits together too well with the control that clandestine agencies exercise over the shadowy presence of drone technology in other parts of the world. Chase’s spy drone may look innocent and even helpful, but it unlocks a child’s imagination to the potential of all drones, including those who kill other people. Moreover, the shaping received by the cartoon drone makes it far more likely that young viewers will justify the use of all drones as useful and necessary.
Everything forms our imaginations, from the sports and television shows we watch to the books we read to the foods we eat and the songs we sing. While we cannot prevent such formation from occurring, for the sake of our children we ought to at least ask about the shape of it.