SpongeBob SquarePants is in hot water with researchers. A new study suggests that watching just nine minutes of the Nickelodeon program can cause short term attention and learning problems in 4-year-old children.
TV watching has been linked to long-term attention problems since I was a child in the 1960s watching JP Patches every morning. Now, researchers are suggesting that more immediate problems can occur after very little exposure and can be more severe than previously thought depending on what is being watched.
The study, cited in today's online journal Pediatrics, involved 60 children who were randomly shown 9-minute segments of either SpongeBob or the PBS cartoon Caillou. A third group of children was asked to spend the same amount of time drawing pictures. Immediately after watching the shows or drawing the kids were all given mental function tests; those who watched SpongeBob did measurably worse than the other children.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a child development specialist at Seattle's Children's Hospital, says the results should be interpreted cautiously because the group studied is so small.
In a commentary that accompanies the main study, Dr. Christakis writes, "The quantity of media consumed has been an unduly emphasized part of the story. It is not that quantity is unimportant, but the effects of media are mediated more by what is watched than how much is watched."
University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard, the study's lead author, said Nickelodeon's SpongeBob shouldn't be singled out. She says the main issue is the pace of the programming. In the case of SpongeBob versus Caillou, scenes in Bikini Bottom change more than three times per minute, whereas Caillou offers greater continuity.
It should come as no surprise that Nickelodeon is taking issue with the study. A spokesman for the network says the study inappropriately focuses on children that are younger than the show's target audience of kids aged 6-to-11 years old.
Additionally, spokesman David Bittler argues with the methodology. "Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's targeted (audience), watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly prove the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust."
Most of the children studied were white and from middle-class or wealthy families. They were given common mental function tests after watching cartoons or drawing. The SpongeBob kids scored on average 12 points lower than the other two groups, whose scores were nearly identical.