Most prefer factual and drama programmes, the Independent Television Commission survey said.
The report, "Cartoon Crazy?", is the first in the UK to draw on the views of children themselves, looking at those aged five to nine and their mothers.
One of the authors, Sue Chambers, said television was one of many complementary activities which children enjoyed and what needed to be encouraged was watching a wide range of programmes. "Cartoons are an important part of children's viewing because they are short and easy to dip in and out of," she said. "They're more relaxing, than challenging, to watch."
The survey, covering more than 60 children, their mothers and two whole families, found no difference between the attitudes of youngsters who watched cable and satellite and those who saw only terrestrial television.
The report drew a distinction between cartoons like The Flintstones, Scooby Doo and Rugrats and action animations such as Street Sharks, Spiderman and Batman And Robin.
While they had a broad appeal, only the narrow band of boys aged five to seven enjoyed action cartoons and many watched them only because nothing else was on.
The report found the most popular cartoons were those like Tom and Jerry which included slapstick humour.
The ITC also found a difference between "good scary" cartoons, like Scooby Doo, and "bad scary" ones such as the computer-animated Reboot. The first category was enjoyed by those who participated in the report, often because there was excitement and humour, but few enjoyed the latter, which often included the use of violent weapons.
Ms Chambers said some of the mothers were shocked by the aggressive and "dark" programmes their children were watching. However, even though some of the children found them disturbing they realised they were simply cartoons, that nobody got hurt and that the good characters always won. And for younger viewers the more frightening, complex plots were more likely to go over their heads, boring them rather than upsetting them.
Peter Rogers, ITC chief executive, said: "This research shows that children can be as discerning in their viewing as adults."
Another ITC report suggested young children could be disturbed by "morphing" images in advertising. The computer technique, which transforms people into creatures, has been used in adverts by Peugeot and Irn Bru. Frank Willis, ITC director of advertising and sponsorship, said advertisers had been warned about using the technique.
A third ITC study released yesterday, on television as a teaching aid, found that those students who enjoyed learning from television were more likely to value reading as a learning method. English and reading were among the subjects for which television is most used and seen as most beneficial.