Watching only nine minutes of a “fast-paced” television cartoon reduced preschoolers’ self-organizing ability and short-term recall directly afterward, according to a study published in the October 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics. Article authors Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville described the “fast-paced” show as “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea.” Obviously, the show in question was SpongeBob SquarePants.
The children, all age four (preschoolers), either watched nine minutes of SpongeBob, nine minutes of a slow-paced show about a “typical US preschool-age boy” (Caillou, is that you?), or drew for nine minutes. After their nine minutes, each child underwent a series of tests designed to assess their executive function, which includes paying attention, controlling impulse, solving problems, regulating self, and delaying gratification. Lillard and Peterson found that the preschoolers who watched SpongeBob performed worse on these tasks than the children from the other two groups. In other words, watching Caillou didn’t seem to bollix up short-term executive function, but watching SpongeBob did.
The tests the children took involved, for example, a choice between marshmallows or Goldfish crackers. In this delay-of-gratification challenge, children could have 10 pieces of the snack they chose if they could wait for the experimenter to return after leaving the room. Alternatively, they could have two pieces of the snack they didn’t choose if they rang a bell at any time to get the experimenter to return. In short, wait a long time for more of what you want, or get less of what you didn’t want at any time. I know exactly how Patrick Star (a SpongeBob character) would have behaved in that test, and I wonder if any of the children may have imitated that behavior after watching some of the show. Caillou? He’d’ve still been trying to choose the snack.
The response of Nickelodeon, which airs SpongeBob episodes, is worth noting. The show, the network told CNN (as quoted in the LA Times), is not intended for preschoolers but instead is targeted to children ages six to 11. As a parent of three former preschoolers, I can tell you that the shows intended for that group are much more like Caillou (which is for preschoolers) – they are slow-paced offerings such as Max and Ruby, about two adorable bunny siblings who spend a half hour not doing much of anything. Max doesn’t even talk. Entertainment Weekly lists SpongeBob as the most popular show among kids in the two to 11 age group, a statistic the authors cite, but that list also includes shows like iCarly and American Idol, and I haven’t met a two-year-old who’d spend nine minutes on either of those. That age range is just how EW divided the bracket. It’s hard to know, based on that, how many children under age six really watch SpongeBob or similar shows, which makes it hard to know just how relevant these results are.
The authors themselves note that a limitation of the study is that they used four-year-olds and that “older children might not be negatively influenced by fast-paced television.” Also, they say that how long the identified negative effects might last is unknown.
Why would SpongeBob – or any other fast-paced cartoon, like, say, the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote zip-fests of my youth – interfere in the short term with attention and other self-organizing and control behaviors? Lillard and Peterson speculate that a combination of fast action and fantastical events-talking sponges, money-grubbing crabs, cranky octopi – might conspire to interfere with these functions. Lillard and Peterson do note that very little scientific work exists describing how television show pacing might affect a child’s attention. One television show that turned up in these studies was Sesame Street. An older study used fast-paced vs. slow-paced episodes of the show and found no difference in outcomes for the kids who watched it. I haven’t watched Sesame Street in a long time, but the authors of the SpongeBob study say that today, the Street moves even faster than it did 30 years ago when that work was done. Sounds like Super Grover’s got nothing on today’s Muppets. Speaking of puppets, I wonder how watching a fast-paced, fantastical Punch and Judy show in the 19th century affected young children’s attention spans.
Bottom line: Children age four years performed worse on executive function tasks after watching nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants compared to preschoolers who spent those nine minutes watching Caillou or drawing, according to a study by Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. As always, it is the parent’s responsibility to be aware of the content, appropriateness, and duration of their children’s entertainment choices.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."