SpongeBob, when shown to 4-year-olds for nine minutes, reduces the ability of toddlers to respond to cognitive tests. Image: Flickr / mexican / CC-BY-SA

On average, children in the United States watch between two and five hours of television a day. A study published in the journal Pediatrics is raising questions about the effects of that much TV.

‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ versus PBS

The study published recently took 60 mostly white 4-year-olds from middle-class families and separated them into three groups. One group colored for nine minutes. One group watched a “fast-paced cartoon about a kitchen sponge living in the sea,” which generally matches the description of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The last group watched a slower-paced PBS-produced show called “Caillou.” After nine minutes, the 4-year-olds were given tests that measured their self-control, delayed gratification and problem-solving ability.

Short-term effects of television

The three groups of children the researchers studied showed markedly different reactions to the tests. The group that colored and the one that watched “Caillou” both responded similarly to the tests, which included waiting five minutes to eat a plate full of Goldfish crackers. The group that watched “SpongeBob,” on the other hand, showed markedly less self-control and problem-solving ability. The researchers postulated that the problem is over-stimulation. “SpongBob” changes scenes every 11 seconds.

Long-term effects of television

This particular study did not consider the potential long-term effects of television on young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the use of electronic media, asking parents to limit children to two hours a day or less of looking at a screen of any kind. The Université de Montréal, the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center and the University of Michigan released a study in 2010 revealing that children who were exposed to TV at an early age tended to have unhealthy habits later on in life.

“We found every additional hour of TV exposure among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, have a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and, ultimately, higher body mass index.”

Limitations of this study

The Pediatrics study that pitted “Caillou” against “SpongeBob” has several limitations. First, “SpongeBob” is not targeted to 4-year-olds. The show relies on sarcasm and filming techniques that have a target audience of 6 to 13 years of age. The group studied was also very small, which means the results need to be replicated on a larger scale before larger conclusions can be drawn.


Wired: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/09/spongebob-preschoolers-study/
Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/0912/SpongeBob-study-Do-fast-paced-cartoons-impair-kids-thinking
NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/09/12/140401099/spongebob-may-be-too-speedy-for-preschool-brains?ps=cprs
Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100503161229.htm

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