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SpongeBob TV Attention-Deficit Study Doesn’t Hold Water: View

September 15, 2011

Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- SpongeBob SquarePants probably doesn’t need any more defending. Since his drubbing in the medical journal Pediatrics on Monday, plenty of fans have stood up for him, testifying to his messy, merry appeal.

But his viewers, and their parents, could probably use some support, too, or at least reassurance that there’s no need to walk out on Bikini Bottom just yet.

The new rap against Mr. SquarePants (he’s also been slammed for exalting junk food and accused of promoting homosexuality) comes from a study by psychologists at the University of Virginia, which claims to have found evidence that the TV show moves too fast for little kids, and thus erodes their ability to pay attention. Too-fast pacing is a familiar complaint about children’s TV, dating to the 1970s. Until now it has not stood up to scientific scrutiny, and there is good reason to think the new study won’t either.

The researchers found that a group of 20 4-year-olds who watched the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” for just nine minutes performed significantly worse on tests of “executive function” than did like-sized groups of 4-year-olds who either watched the animated show “Caillou,” a relatively sedate program, or played with paper, crayons and markers for nine minutes.

(In the Pediatrics article, the two programs aren’t named, but are referred to, revealingly, as “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea” and “a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical U.S. preschool-aged boy.”)

The “SpongeBob” clip had scene changes every 11 seconds, on average, while the “Caillou” segment had them only every 34 seconds.

After viewing the clips, or coloring pictures, the children were given four tests. They were instructed, for example, to touch their heads and toes, and to repeat strings of numbers in reverse order.

Tired Minds

Those who watched “SpongeBob” worked at just half the capacity of those in the other two groups, the lead researcher told reporters, because their brains were exhausted from having worked so hard to follow the fast animation.

Interpreted that way, the findings sound alarming. But experience tells us we should be cautious about leaping to the conclusion that quick scene changes caused the kids’ poor test results.

In the mid-1970s, when television was being disparaged as a “plug-in drug,” psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, published the first study on whether fast-paced TV can affect children’s attention. The study was similar to the University of Virginia’s, but better designed.

The researchers observed three groups of 24 4-year-olds. Two groups watched a 40-minute segment of, notably, the same TV show: “Sesame Street,” which was then criticized for moving too quickly. Children who watched it, it was said, risked developing shorter attention spans and becoming extraordinarily impulsive. One group watched a segment containing shot changes every six seconds while the other group watched one in which some scenes went on for as long as eight minutes. The third group listened to their parents read stories.

No Proof Found

Afterward, researchers tested the children to gauge their concentration and attention span. They found no differences among the three groups.

In the decades that followed, other researchers looked for proof that the pace of television might impair children’s thinking, but came up with almost nothing. One 2000 study found some evidence that 4- and 5-year-olds who watched “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” had shorter attention spans immediately after than those who watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

But that study, like the University of Virginia one, compared apples with oranges -- two entirely different TV shows -- so there’s no telling which characteristics of the programs might have affected the children’s thinking.

Could it be that the children were slow to settle down and get to work because “SpongeBob” is funny and they were energized by laughter? As much as we respect all forms of expression, it’s safe to say that “Caillou” is not particularly funny, and it’s easy to see how kids could turn from watching it to performing serious tasks without needing a moment to recover.

The notion that any TV cartoon might be bad for children’s brains because it moves so fast is no better established now than it was when it was first proposed more than three decades ago. Our friend under the sea remains innocent until proven guilty.

--Editors: Mary Duenwald, Lisa Beyer

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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