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Study says Spongebob hurts kids: How much does TV affect development?

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It’s been a bad week for one boxy animated sponge.

In the October issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers report that the underwater cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants seems to put a dent in preschoolers’ thinking and attention skills – not for chronic watchers of the program, but for kids who viewed just one nine-minute segment.

It’s a new twist in the story of how TV affects kids, one that is especially scary for parents. While most research on the subject tends to focus on long-term habits, looking at things like how many hours per day kids regularly watch and correlating it to certain behaviors and cognitive skills, this study pits specific cartoons against each other and looks at kids’ mental strength directly after a mini-episode.

In the experiment, three groups of four-year-olds spent nine minutes watching SpongeBob, the PBS cartoon Caillou, or they passed the time drawing. After the nine minutes were up, they were tested on their ability to think, pay attention, and process information.

The SpongeBob kids did significantly worse on the tests than those in the Caillou or drawing groups. The tasks were designed to look at executive function – the collection of skills that allow us to think ahead, resist impulses, stay on task, and remember information. Executive function has come increasingly under the spotlight in recent years as being key to our kids’ ability to succeed in school, work towards a goal, and generally learn and thrive. Naturally, our ears perk up at the thought of something working against this critical brainpower.

Four tests were given to the groups – asking kids to remember short sequences of numbers and repeat them backward, resist impulses (a version of the marshmallow test), solve puzzles, and follow directions. The SpongeBob kids – even though they didn’t differ on average in abilities or TV viewing habits before the test – took a significant hit during the test, compared to their Caillou and drawing peers.

So how is this different than what we know about kids and TV already? While it’s been shown before that heavy doses of TV over the long term are linked to lower executive function, this is one of the first studies to suggest how immediate, and specific to the particular show, the effect can be.

Researchers think the submarine cartoon saps executive function partially through pacing. The quick speed overloads a child’s brain with sensory information – mental resources are depleted just trying to process all the action. Meanwhile, the ability to think, plan, and focus (all skills that involve the prefrontal cortex, home of executive function) dwindle, so that immediately afterwards, a child isn’t operating at full capacity. Pacing was measured by how often the scene changed completely; in SpongeBob, the setting switched an average of every 11 seconds, with a lot of high action within scenes. Caillou changed scenes every 34.

The other reason they propose for the finding is that SpongeBob’s fantastical, reality-bending nature over-taxes a young kid’s brain – just too many oddities and unexpected twists to compute.

Personally, I’m not ready to equate SpongeBob with the melting of brain cells just yet. First of all, the study population was small and follow-ups are needed. The show is intended for kids age six and up, and maybe at that age it’s not a mental overload. Also, we don’t know what the temporary lull in executive function means and how long the effect would last – are chronic watchers of fast-paced TV really less attentive long after screen time is over, or is it a dip that fades or even signals that some learning is taking place?

Still, as a parent, the sensory overload theory rings true to me. Last year, as a two-year-old, one of my son’s favorite “shows” to watch was a video of machines and trucks in action. Men putting on their gear and loading up the fire truck, a street sweeper cruising along the city roads, and cranes and bulldozers tramping through a construction site. Something about the simplicity and leisurely pace of it made me feel comfy plopping him down when I needed a break. I’ll be giving SpongeBob the once-over next time we’re flipping channels to see if I think he’s too turbo for my preschooler. In the meantime, I’m happy with Big Bird and side-loading garbage trucks.

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