Parents may dote on the tragicomic adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants, but researchers say that that the cartoon's fast-based scenes may make it harder for young children to pay attention and think.
"I would not encourage parents of a 4-year-old boy to have him watch SpongeBob right before he goes in for his kindergarten readiness assessment," Dimitri Christakis told Shots. He's a child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital who wrote a commentary on the new study, which was just published in the journal Pediatrics.
But fans of the optimistic denizen of Bikini Bottom can take solace in the fact that the new study comes with a boatload of caveats. Just 20 4-year-olds were tested after watching the popular Nickolodeon show, and they watched it for nine minutes. That's a very small sample size, and it hardly reflects the real TV-watching habits of young children, who commonly watch two to five hours a day of TV.
And the researchers, psychologists Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, didn't measure if the problems with attention and executive function lasted. But they did compare the SpongeBob watchers to 20 children who watched Caillou, a slower-paced PBS show that features a sweet yet whiny preschooler. Another 20 colored for 9 minutes.
Neither of those groups had problems with the tests, which involved remembering a series of numbers, following rules, and delaying gratification. (That test asks the preschoolers to resist eating a plateful of Goldfish crackers for 5 minutes, which would be hard for many members of the NPR Science Desk.)
But the kids who watched SpongeBob, which changed scenes every 11 seconds, did significantly worse on the tests than either the children who colored, or those who watched educational TV. Caillou changed scenes every 34 seconds.
Other studies have found that children who watch a lot of TV as preschoolers have more problems with attention in the elementary-school years. Christakis, who has conducted several of those studies, says that the findings of the new study are consistent with what he's found. It's not SpongeBob himself who's the culprit, he says, but fast-paced or violent shows. "It's overstimulation that causes the problem," he says. The theory is that overstimulation while a child's brain is developing makes it harder to focus on sustained tasks later on.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that parents should limit children's use of electronic media to no more than two hours a day. But Christakis says what they're watching is as important as how much. "There's no question that American children watch too much TV," he says, but "an hour or two of SpongeBob is way worse than two hours of Caillou."