Back in 2005 he caught flak from a Christian evangelical group because its leader thought he was gay. Now a small new study suggests he could be turning preschoolers' minds to mush.
The study, published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics, found watching a snippet of a SpongeBob cartoon negatively affected 4-year-olds’ attention spans. Watching a more realistic PBS cartoon did not.
These days, kids typically start watching television at 4 months of age, and they watch lots of it, Dr. Dimitri Christakis writes in a commentary accompanying the study.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age 2 not watch any television, the group says a limited amount is OK for older children as long as it's no more than one to two hours a day of educational programs.
The quality of what children watch is just as important as the quantity, Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said in an interview.
“Most parents worry too much about how much TV their children watch and not enough about what they watch,” he says. “It’s not about turning the TV off. It’s about changing the channel.”
In the new study, it’s about changing the channel from Nickelodeon to PBS.
University of Virginia researchers recruited 60 mostly white and middle- or upper-middle-class 4-year-olds and randomly divided them into three groups. One group watched a 9-minute clip of "SpongeBob SquarePants," a second watched a 9-minute clip of "Caillou," a realistic PBS cartoon about a preschool boy, and the third drew pictures for 9 minutes instead of watching television.
Immediately afterward, the researchers tested what psychologists call “executive function” in the children. “What executive function basically measures is your ability to stay on task, to not be distracted and to persist on task,” Christakis explains.
Turns out the PBS and picture-drawing groups performed equally well on the tests; the SpongeBob group scored significantly worse. Watching a full half-hour fast-paced cartoon show could be even more detrimental, the study authors write.
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They speculate that the SpongeBob show’s more rapid pace and fantastic characters, such as that talking, pants-wearing kitchen sponge who lives under the sea, might be too much for preschoolers’ brains to take in.
“It confirms something that parents have observed for some time,” Christakis says of the study. “They put their kids in front of television, particularly fast-paced programming, to quiet them down, but when the TV goes off, the kids are more amped up than they were before.”
Don’t blame Mr. SquarePants for messing with preschoolers’ brains, Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler says. “SpongeBob is produced for 6- to 11-year-olds. Four-year-olds are clearly not the intended demographic for this show.”
True, SpongeBob is not listed among the shows for preschoolers on nickjr.com. Probably the best-known of those is “Dora the Explorer,” and, Bittler says, many adults complain that show is too slow.
SpongeBob might not have the same negative effect on attention in older children, the authors acknowledge. And, they write, they don’t know how long the negative effects last or what the long-term effects of regularly viewing SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and the gang might be.
“Maybe the next step is really to try and figure out how long-lasting these effects are,” says Georgetown University psychologist Rachel Barr.
Barr’s research also has found that watching shows not specifically aimed at preschoolers—and that would include SpongeBob—adversely impacted 4-year-olds’ executive functioning. On the other hand, Barr speculates, educational, age-appropriate programming might have a positive effect.
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