Have you ever come home from a long, frustrating, and depressing day at work only to be overcome with the unstoppable urge to hunker down in your comfort zone via a piece of nostalgic media from your childhood? Whether you choose Harry Potter, Twilight, Spongebob, or even a film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if you’re lucky, the myriad energy drains and expectations of the workday slowly begin to fade as you find yourself enveloped in a story you know and love as well as your own childhood bedroom.
Suddenly, you hear a door open outside the walls of your apartment. Then footsteps patter closer and closer to your front door, followed by the distinct clang of keys jingling as your roommate fumbles them into your lock. Faster than a mongoose, you reach for the remote as you begin desperately searching for something — anything — more respectable for a person creeping up on three decades of life on Earth to be watching after work. Your roommate enters the apartment, says hello, and walks past you into their bedroom without even a glance at the television you were so concerned they might glimpse.
If nothing like this has ever happened to you, congratulations: you’re much less concerned with the opinions of others than the rather self-involved author of this article. Still, I’d be willing to bet the farm that most people reading this have experienced something comparable to that hypothetical situation in one way or another.
Despite how often we all try to tell ourselves how little stock we place in how others view us, most people can’t help trying to shape the way friends, family, and the outside world perceive us from time to time. In the age of streaming, what you watch says something about who you are, and religiously watching things designed for children might relay a signal you’d rather not broadcast.
But are we justified to be so concerned about our consumption of kids’ media? Is it natural to find comfort in content geared towards the children we used to be? Or is this collective nostalgic fixation little more than the entertainment equivalent of a fast food addiction? Let’s get into the weeds, take a look at the issue from both sides, and break it all down.
Time to let go?
Speaking as someone who watches more comic book content than almost anyone I know, it would be hypocritical of me to claim adults shouldn’t consume children’s media. The original target audience for superhero comics may have been kids, but throughout the past few decades, forward-thinking writers have injected mature themes into the genre, thus expanding the scope of the intended demographic.
But despite the odd suggestive quip or mildly thought-provoking villain, even diehard comic book film fans would have a tough time arguing that these movies are little more than easily digestible popcorn flicks designed for mass consumption at every step of the way.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with stories that never take too many risks, you can begin to lose your appetite for challenging material if you steep yourself too heavily in the formula they follow. Eventually, predictability and narrative hand-holding become your baseline of enjoyment, and anything that dares to deviate from the playbook seems unwieldy and alien.
There are only so many times you can watch and rewatch films in which teamwork and perseverance are the only themes before you lose sight of the grand spectrum of human emotion utilized in more stimulating works.
An entertainment diet should be as balanced and diverse as your nutritional diet. If you overload on junk food for a quick dopamine rush, you’ll lack the nutrients you need to stay fit and healthy. The same is true for the types of entertainment you choose to consume. Venturing outside your comfort zone with films, series, and books made by people with bold perspectives and willingness to push the envelope is the only way to expand your horizons.
There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a film or reading a book that scratches an intellectual or emotional itch you didn’t even know you had. There’s no way for that to happen without hanging up the capes, cowls, and cartoons every now and again.
For adults, children’s media is often best served as comfort food. If you’re down on your luck and in dire need of a nostalgic pick-me-up or a familiar fairytale, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting on one of the Disney or Pixar classics to wash your worries away. Just make sure to space out those binges by throwing in some documentaries, dramedies, and arthouse films to broaden your scope of influences.
But what about the flip side of the coin? Is there a benefit to rewatching children’s content with adult eyes?
Getting in-touch with your inner child
While it’s undeniable that kids’ media is often simpler and less impressionistic than anything geared toward adults, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it. Watching something you loved when you were younger as a fully grown adult with world experience can unlock layers of meaning and connection in the piece that you never knew existed.
Oftentimes, the creators of high-quality children’s works will covertly insert subtextual thematic messages into their narratives that fly in one ear and out the other of a child. However, these hidden themes can be powerful and resonant for adults — especially when discovered later in life.
As millennials and zoomers enter and exit increasingly trying stages of true adulthood, the inclination to regress back to childlike modes of expression is a valid and often necessary stress response. The ruthless world of boardroom meetings, deadlines, and harshly worded emails leaves no room for the simple things that once brought us comfort and joy, like the wonder of imagination, the beauty of friendship, and the power of hopes and dreams.
Creating a safe cocoon of escapist warmth at home as a reprieve from the cold, uncaring world outside is a defense mechanism more people in their twenties and thirties seem to be utilizing.
A recent Gallup poll revealed that 85% of the world’s adult population feels unhappy and unsatisfied with their jobs. It seems almost every day, we are inundated with a barrage of depressing headlines detailing the ongoing decline of our political, economic, and environmental systems. As these confusing and often terrifying times become more impenetrable and saddening by the day, it’s no wonder many adults turn to soothing and simplistic stories from their childhoods for a respite.
In the 2020s, there might be no shortage of fresh and engaging entertainment to absorb, but given the choice between that macabre new HBO drama all the critics are raving about and a calming animated kids’ movie from the early 2000s, many world-weary adults will choose the latter if it means protecting themselves from yet another barrage of psychological anguish — fictional or not.
And this applies doubly so for people in regularly traumatic professional fields. The last thing a nurse who just spent a 12-hour shift in an emergency room wants to do to unwind is subject themselves to more disturbing adult imagery, regardless of how captivating or well-crafted it may be.
Meeting in the middle
So, should adults feel guilty about consuming children’s content? From where I’m standing, the answer is a resounding no. Life is too short and demanding to tie yourself into knots by concerning yourself with what others might think of the things you enjoy.
If you’d rather watch The Avengers or Toy Story on a Wednesday night instead of True Detective, you won’t find any judgment from our little corner of the internet. If there was ever a valid reason to regulate your consumption of nostalgic media, it shouldn’t be guilt.
However, if you choose to forgo watching some of the Nickelodeon classics in favor of an arthouse indie feature, let it be for positive reasons instead of fear-based ones. One of the most important lifelong lessons we learn as children deals with the gratifying power of moderation. In art and entertainment, the things we love most can lose their emotional potency if we turn to them too often for comfort and reassurance.
As long as you can supplement your core rotation with fresh additions every now and then, you might surprise yourself with how new and rejuvenating those timeless childhood stories might begin to feel once you return to them.