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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Say It Ain’t So, SpongeBob!

The media are agog with reports about a new study critical of everyone’s favorite cartoon invertebrate, SpongeBob Squarepants. Headlines scream “Spongebob Squarepants causes learning problems” and “Watching Spongebob Squarepants makes preschoolers slower thinkers” – yikes! Could the little yellow fry-cook with the annoying laugh be so dangerous?

Maybe. But the study certainly doesn’t show anything so dire. In fact, it barely shows anything at all. As usual, the media over-hyped a small, mundane report whose logical conclusion should be barely a yawn.

 As an aside: the actual study doesn’t explicitly mention SpongeBob—the authors refer to a “very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea.” We’re assuming it was SpongeBob, but that could be unfair. Maybe it was a different sponge cartoon.

The authors, from the University of Virginia, recruited 60 four-year olds (not 64 year olds—though it would have been funny to see what they thought of the cartoons, too.) 20 kids watched 9 minutes of Spongebob (presumably), 20 kids watched 9 minutes of “a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical U.S. preschool-aged boy” widely reported as being Caillou, who the authors failed to mention is much balder than a typical child. The 20 remaining children played with crayons.

Immediately afterwards, all of the children undertook four different tests of attention and focus. One was a sort of Simon-says, touch your body part game; one other test determined if the children were able to wait a few minutes before eating a snack, or if they chose to eat it immediately. In all four tests, the SpongeBobbers did more poorly than children watching bald Caillou or doodling.

Interesting, but hardly surprising. SpongeBob is not a show for four-year-olds — it’s for school-aged kids. What if the children were shown other types of programming that wasn’t designed for them, like Dancing with the Stars or the local news? Caillou is soft and slow and gentle. SpongeBob is frantic. Should it surprise anyone that it got preschoolers keyed up?

Furthermore, only 20 children actually watched Spongebob. Such a small study might be interesting, and might pave the way for further research. But it’s hardly a large enough sample to lead to grand conclusions.

And, most importantly, how would these same kids do after an hour or so? It’s very possible — likely, I think — that after a little while, the kids would settle down. Does Spongebob, as the media headlines indicate, really cause “learning problems” or slow thinking?

Many children do watch too much TV — and excessive television has been linked in good studies to poor school performance, behavior problems, and obesity. I think most children would probably be healthier if they watched less TV. But based on this study I’m not so convinced that 9 minutes of Spongebob, specifically, is going to cause significant or long-term problems.

Posted by: Roy Benaroch, MD, FAAP at 11:12 am

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