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Posted at 12:01 AM ET, 09/12/2011

SpongeBob’s effect on kids’ brains

As a health writer, I never thought I’d have opportunity to blog about my favorite TV cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants.

But now my day has come.

I’m glad that my kids grew up during the SpongeBob era. To me, the cartoon is equal parts silly, smart and sweet. Its varied cast of characters encourages appreciation of diversity without ever even hinting at that word or that goal. Its writing is clever, its message often heart-warming. And, of course, it’s got one of the most memorable theme songs ever.

So imagine my chagrin when I read the study published this morning in the journal Pediatrics characterizing the show (identified as “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea”) as “fast-paced” and examining whether that fast pace might be harmful to children’s brain functions. (The media relations office at the American Academy of Pediatrics, which publishes Pediatrics, confirmed that the sponge in question is indeed SpongeBob.)

People have been worrying about television’s effects on kids’ brains for decades. But while TV’s long-term effects on children’s cognition, attention and other functions have been studied, nobody had, until now, taken a hard look at short-term effects.

Today’s small study placed each of 60 4-year-old children into one of three groups. One group was shown nine minutes of the animated-sponge cartoon, another nine minutes of a slower-paced “realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical U.S. preschool-aged boy.” The researchers determined the sponge cartoon to be fast-paced because its scenes shifted so rapidly, changing entirely every 11 seconds, on average. In contrast, the slow-paced show switched scenes only every 34 seconds, on average.

The third group watched no show but instead was given paper, crayons and markers for a nine-minute free-drawing period.

The children’s parents filled out a questionnaire about their children, reporting on such aspects of their behavior and development as their ability to concentrate and how much they fidget.

After watching or coloring, each child was administered a set of standard exercises designed to test such aspects of executive function as working memory, attention and self-regulation.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the SpongeBob viewers performed much more poorly on those tasks than did either the educational TV viewers or the kids who colored.

To their credit, the authors don’t overstate the import of their findings. Their concluding statement is simple: “The present study found that 9 minutes of viewing a popular fast-paced fantastical television show immediately impaired 4-year-olds’ [executive function], a result about which parents of young children should be aware.” They also note that the “fantastical” aspect of the undersea sponge cartoon might have influenced the kids’ responses and pledged to address that through further research.

An accompanying commentary raises the provocative question as to whether effects such as those observed in this study might ultimately benefit young people who were born into, and must learn to function in, a multitasking world. Could it be that adults’ slow-moving, neanderthal minds just can’t grasp that value? The commenter concludes, though, that all that multitasking jeopardizes deep thinking and the ability to sustain focus, and that those qualities are too important to sacrifice.

I agree with that. But as a SpongeBob-loving mother of two kids, one now in high school, the other in college, I can’t fathom that watching SpongeBob has hurt my offspring.

I would like to see a study involving kids who watch SpongeBob as part of the broader context of their lives. Kids who watch while yukking it up with a sibling (and often with their parents), memorizing the lines so as to repeat them at choice moments later. Kids who watch while also coloring with markers and crayons. Kids who, despite having watched lots of TV, also have nice big imaginations.

Avid SpongeBob fans reading that word “imagination” will recall the delightful, and particularly sweet, episode in which SpongeBob orders a wide-screen TV — just so he can play in the box.

He throws the TV away, by the way. And any kid watching gets the message.

By  |  12:01 AM ET, 09/12/2011

 
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