CHICAGO (AP) - The cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants is in hot water from a study suggesting that watching just nine minutes of that program can cause short-term attention and learning
problems in 4-year-olds.
The problems were seen in a study of 60 children randomly
assigned to either watch "SpongeBob," or the slower-paced PBS
cartoon "Caillou" or assigned to draw pictures. Immediately after
these nine-minute assignments, the kids took mental function tests;
those who had watched "SpongeBob" did measurably worse than the
Previous research has linked TV-watching with long-term
attention problems in children, but the new study suggests more
immediate problems can occur after very little exposure - results
that parents of young kids should be alert to, the study authors
Kids' cartoon shows typically feature about 22 minutes of
action, so watching a full program "could be more detrimental,"
the researchers speculated, But they said more evidence is needed
to confirm that.
The results should be interpreted cautiously because of the
study's small size, but the data seem robust and bolster the idea
that media exposure is a public health issue, said Dr. Dimitri
Christakis. He is a child development specialist at Seattle
Children's Hospital who wrote an editorial accompanying the study
published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Christakis said parents need to realize that fast-paced
programming may not be appropriate for very young children. "What
kids watch matters, it's not just how much they watch," he said.
University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard,
the lead author, said Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob" shouldn't be
singled out. She found similar problems in kids who watched other
fast-paced cartoon programming.
She said parents should realize that young children are
compromised in their ability to learn and use self-control
immediately after watching such shows. "I wouldn't advise watching
such shows on the way to school or any time they're expected to pay
attention and learn," she said.
Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler disputed the findings and
said "SpongeBob SquarePants" is aimed at kids aged 6-11, not
"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 provide the basis
for any valid findings that parents could trust," he said.
Lillard said 4-year-olds were chosen because that age "is the
heart of the period during which you see the most development" in
certain self-control abilities. Whether children of other ages
would be similarly affected can't be determined from this study
Most kids 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
In another test, measuring self-control and impulsiveness, kids
were rated on how long they could wait before eating snacks
presented when the researcher left the room. "SpongeBob" kids
waited about 2 1/2 minutes on average, versus at least four minutes
for the other two groups.
The study has several limitations. For one thing, the kids
weren't tested before they watched TV. But Lillard said none of the
children had diagnosed attention problems and all got similar
scores on parent evaluations of their behavior.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)