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

How much does TV really affect our kids?

By Heather Turgeon |

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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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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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8 thoughts on “Study says Spongebob hurts kids: How much does TV affect development?

  1. Natalie says:

    This makes me even more sad that Mr. Rogers is no longer being shown on PBS. That was a very relaxed and soothing show.

  2. Marc Patlan says:

    Fantastic read. I don’t have kids, but I worry about my nephew who is a chronic Spongebob watcher.

  3. Meelah Imamommynow Carter-Rutled says:

    this is inaccurate information the study did not find that spongebob was bad for children it found that fast paced television impair executive function in children more than slow paced television. Spongebob was used as an example of fast paced television. It is this kind of sensationalism that can truly be harmful to kids and parents in the long run by creating irrational fears and poor decision making. To answer the question it is my personal opinion that children under 3 should not watch television at all. The American Association of Pediatrics agrees with me. Television is unhealthy and it teaches children gender, social, and racial stereotypes, and can lead to child hood obesity.

  4. heather turgeon says:

    Meelah: not sure what you’re referring to – did you read the article? (that’s not meant to sound sarcastic, I’m genuinely curious).

  5. Stoich91 says:

    Haha, did we all really need RESEARCH to tell us Spongebob soaks up braincells every passing minute that you watch it? For parents who bow down to the sponge’s superiority for a moment of “quiet time” in which they binge on cookies and ignore the cleaning, hopefully this will allow them to think twice before sitting their kid in front of Spongebob. I am utterly un-convinced that any sane person has sat in front of that show for at least 20 minutes and could afterwards logically dispute it’s ability to rupture brain cells, but hey, that’s my take on things. :D Thanks for such a great article! It was a great laugh, as well as a good reminder!

  6. Sue McElwee says:

    I knew all these years of boycotting was for good reason ;)

  7. Brenna Bechtold says:

    Im sorry, but as a busy mom with a hard working husband. I find SpongeBob to be one of the best babysitters i know! ..Besides do you remember what you were watching when you were 4?.. Its really not an issue.

  8. Ashley Curtice says:

    I allow my daughter to watch spongebob, she loves the show and I would hate to take that away from her. I highly doubt that her watching spongebob will impare her later learning. She learns at her own pace, and she is a very intelligent 4 year old. She is learning spanish right now, going to preschool, and ice skating. I don’t think watching a few hours of spongebob is going to make her less intelligent. In my opinion if spongebob is more fast paced than some other toddler shows, then maybe she is actually more intelligent because she is able to watch and keep up with a show like spongebob as opposed to other children who need to watch slower paced shows to understand what is going on?? Intelligence and learning smarts are two different things. You are born with intelligence, you use tools to become smart. A person with no knowledge can study to become smarter, an intelligent person is inherently smart, and studies to become smarter and aware and rounded. So I believe that tv can not effect a child so much that that child would have been a genius if not for tv. If your child is doing well and learning even though he/she watches more than the RECOMMENDED amount of tv, or recommended show..I don’t believe you’ve ruined your child’s life. I believe it is up to what else your child does during their week, or what else you teach them that really has an effect. They are young…you have years of their life to make sure they are on the right track to success,

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