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EDIT 27/09/11: This piece was selected by Jason Goldman in his weekly roundup! Thanks Jason!

I was on the phone with my mom recently, and she told me about a recent study she saw on CTV stating that watching SpongeBob Squarepants was bad for children. I scoured the internet, and found the research article in question. While searching, I also found reference to the study in the media. The headlines were … disturbing. They ranged from the factual “SpongeBob may impair 4-year-olds’ brains” and “Young Attention Spans Impaired by SpongeBob and Rapid Games, Study Says” to the more controversial “So your four-year-old can’t concentrate? He’s probably been watching SpongeBob” and finally throwing all logic and reason out of the window and claiming “Study says SpongeBob makes kids stupid.” (Those are all the actual headlines) As you can imagine this just made me more interested in the actual paper itself – in particular if I would be able to use the line “Researchers call SpongeBob Stupid” and cite it.

A threat to your child's intelligence?

As someone who watched a fair share of Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles  as a kid, I wanted to see how such claims were made, and what the actual study was. And yes, it was Teenage Mutant HERO Turtles. In the UK they changed the word Ninja to Hero, as Ninja had violent connotations. True story.

More after this word from our sponsors … (click read more)


What did they do?

The researchers at the University of Virginia recruited 60 four-year-old children for this study. They were randomized to one of three treatments, each of which was 9 minutes in duration.The three conditions were: fast paced television, educational television or drawing. As described in the study:

The fast-paced television group watched a truncated episode of a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea. The educational television group watched a truncated episode of a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US preschool-aged boy. Free drawing with markers and crayons was the control condition. (Lillard and Peterson, 2011)

Following their 9 minutes of exposure to one of those conditions, the children then had to complete three tasks. The first is the Tower of Hanoi task. This requires moving three discs (in this experiment they called them “monkeys”) from one peg to a third peg. You can try an interactive example here (requires JavaScript). The second task was the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulder (HTKS) task, where the child has to touch their toes when the experimenter says touch their head and vice versa. The final task is a delay-of-gratification task, where the child is given the option between waiting 10 minutes and getting 10 pieces of their chosen snack (marshmallows or Goldfish) or getting 2 pieces immediately. They could also take the two pieces at any time in the 10 minute waiting period.

Pictured: A fantastical animated sponge and his friends

What did they find?

At the beginning of the study, parental responses to their child’s attention indicated there was no different between the three groups. They also all watched the same amount of television.

However, even after watching *only* 9 minutes of television, there was a strong and significant difference between the drawing and educational groups and the fast-paced group. As can be seen in Figure 1, the children who watched the fast-paced cartoon performed significantly worse on these tasks.

And what now?

The study is consistent with others in the field that show that fast-paced cartoons can impact attention among children. However, whether this is due to cognitive development being impaired immediately after exposure, or whether the fast-paced and novel stimuli presented in SpongeBob Squarepants depletes child cognitive resources is unknown. This is something they will investigate in future studies.

The study in itself is very interesting, in an area that demands further study. It would be particularly interesting to know how long these negative effects last for – would the child be back to normal the next day? Or are there cumulative effects with repeated exposure? Given how popular SpongeBob is, this research could affect a large segment of the youth population.

Finally, the Christakis commentary that accompanied the article was interesting and provoking: Is this lack of attention a bad thing? Given the sheer amount of stimuli we encounter in our daily lives (cellphone messages, emails, multiple projects etc), is being able to isolate yourself from the noise a good thing? Is being able to take in a lot of information superficially more useful than deeply understanding less? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.

Lillard, A., & Peterson, J. (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function PEDIATRICS DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919
Christakis DA (2011). The Effects of Fast-Paced Cartoons. Pediatrics PMID: 21911351