The “SpongeBob SquarePants” Effect

November 17th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Could a Saturday morning cartoon change our children’s futures?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Every parent, whether they choose to admit it or not, has had a lazy moment on a Saturday morning when they let their kids soak in an hour of cartoons in exchange for an hour of peace and quiet. As a parent of a 2-year-old, I can certainly say I have.

But what if that hour of cartoons had an immediate effect on our children’s cognitive abilities? According to a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics, if they are tuning into “SpongeBob SquarePants,” it very well could.

The study, conducted by the University of Virginia, concluded that the underwater cartoon compromises preschoolers’ thinking and attention skills – not just among chronic watchers, but also for kids who have seen only nine minutes of the show.

UVA researchers looked at 60 4-year-olds, separated into three groups: one group spent nine minutes watching “SpongeBob,” another watched the PBS cartoon “Caillou” and the third group spent their time drawing. After the nine minutes were up, each group went through a series of brief cognitive tests including solving puzzles, remembering number sequences and repeating them backward, following directions, and resisting impulses (the latter exercise similar to the “Marshmallow Test”).

The tests were designed to look at executive function – the collection of skills that allow us to think ahead, resist impulses, stay on task and remember information. Executive function has been tied to success in school, working toward and achieving goals and a general ability to learn and thrive in changing environments.

The children who watched “SpongeBob SquarePants” for nine minutes did significantly worse on the tests than those who watched “Caillou” or drew pictures. But why? Researchers believe that the cartoon overloads kids’ brains with sensory information. Their mental resources aren’t developed enough to keep up with the action, so as their thought processes get bogged down, their ability to think, plan and focus (all skills that involve executive function) are depleted.

Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler argues that the sensory overload can easily be resolved with a glance at demographics. In an interview with MSNBC, Bitler said, “’SpongeBob’ is produced for 6- to 11-year-olds. Four-year-olds are clearly not the intended demographic for this show,” he said.

But mom-blogger Jeanne Sager says she doesn’t need science to tell her that 4-year-olds shouldn’t be watching the show. She told The Stir that it comes down to good parenting: “When you sit in a room with an obnoxious brat, it doesn't take long to figure out what his (or her) parents let them do. An eleven-year-old's favorite movie is (the R-rated) ‘Paranormal Activity’? And we wonder why these kids are out of control?”

What’s your take? Do reports like this change the way you let your kids watch television? Or will it take more convincing for you to change your parenting style when it comes to TV?