Image: SpongeBob SquarePants
Kids who watched a cartoon of SpongeBob had worse attention spans than those who watched a PBS cartoon for the same amount of time, a new study shows.
TODAY contributor
updated 9/12/2011 1:33:38 AM ET 2011-09-12T05:33:38

Poor SpongeBob.

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 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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Video: Can cartoons harm your kid’s brain?

  1. Closed captioning of: Can cartoons harm your kid’s brain?

    >>> this morning on "parenting today" television's influence on your children. the average preschool kid watches more than 90 minutes of television a day and according to a new study it's not only how much but what they're watching that can havage impact on their attention spans. dr. roge is a medical editor for "health" magazine and robin silverman is a health specialist. good morning to both of you. before we turn to you, robin, with good tips, doctor, this study was in in "the journal of pediatrics" and said fast-paced programming can affect executive functioning . translate for us.

    >> all right. so executive function is a collection of skills that really govern how we behave and acts involving working memory, delayed gratification, problem solving . all the things we need to function well and in this study they looked at 60 4-year-olds and broke them into three groups. one was watching quote/unquote fast-paced television and second was slower paced --

    >> what did they find.

    >> after nine minutes of one of these activities it was decreased in the fast-paced but not affected in the group that watched the slower paced or did the drawings.

    >> had we talking about long-term impact?

    >> that's the interesting question. it only looked at the immediate time after they watched the television but, you know, the question is does this have long-term effects and other studies have shown television watching for children can affect long-term school performance, attention problems, even lead to obesity so, you know, there's a very good chance these results would be extrapolated.

    >> so the bottom line is that it's not just quantity of television but quality. i mean, robin, how would you define fast-paced television?

    >> well, in the study it talks about how often a scene is changed completely. so in the kitchen, in the bedroom, they're in the swimming pool. how often does that happen. fast-paced might be five to six times per minute.

    >> in fact, the study used an example " spongebob squarepants ."

    >> exactly and a slower pace might happen every two, two per minute like " sesame street ."

    >> nickelodeon puts on " spongebob squarepants " and says "having 60 nondiverse kids as not part of the show's targeted demo watch 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly provide the basis for any valle findings. how much television should toddlers be watching.

    >> they should not be watching any more than two hours of high quality television per day. and they really are watching a lot more than that.

    >> and my question is really what parents should do to kind of build this executive function . what are some tips you might have.

    >> good old-fashioned play. get them out there, imagination, creativity, get them listening to directions, following all the way to the end of a goal. they can also get into martial art , yoga, great activities like that.

    >> dr. raj, to be devil's advocate for a minute, you might argue our world is a lot more quicker paced than it used to be.

    >> i hear this argument all the time. adults are texting, on the computer and on the phone all the same time and thinks that makes them more efficient. when you focus on one task at a time you're much more efficient at what you do so we're not preparing our kids for any good behaviors.

    >> a few seconds. robyn, if you want to wean your child off.

    >> get the tv out of the room. be a great role model. if you want them to watch less, you need to watch less.

    >> as a reward system.

    >> like make it more of a privilege. so when are they watching tv ? is it in the morning, afternoon and also what shows are they watching.

    >> all right, dr. raj and robyn silverman, thanks.

    >>> nate berkus will tell us about fall's hottest colors and how to use them in your home.


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