SpongeBob Square Pants! Monday's study showing that kids who watched the fast-paced SpongeBob cartoon fared worse on a series of mental tests gained broad publicity. The study compared 60 four-year-olds immediately after they (a) watched nine minutes of Sponge Bob, (b) watched nine minutes of PBS' Caillou, or (c) drew with crayons.
The children, recruited from middle- and upper-income households, fared worse on the tests after watching SpongeBob, which changed scenes every 11 seconds. The PBS show, by comparison, changed scenes every 34 seconds. The study had limitations, including that it only assessed mental sharpness immediately after the TV shows, and not over a prolonged period of time. But local media expert David Walsh said the results didn't surprise him, and that other research has verified that consumption of fast-paced media can have long-term implications for children's attention spans:
"One of the basic principles of brain development in children is that whatever the brain does a lot of is what the brain gets good at. However we spend a lot of time, that reinforces our neural networks that are getting built like crazy in those early years. For kids who are watching (fast-paced shows), that starts to wire them for that expectation of fast, quick, instant gratification. For that to carry over into behavior -- where it's a little bit harder for those kids to wait, to take turns, to share -- is not terribly surprising."
Note: this is an updated post. A reader had a great idea of showing the differences in cartoon speed and style, and asked if SpongeBob was really all that different from old WB cartoons. Take a look below after reading and judge for yourself. I always thought old cartoons moved pretty fast as well, but I think you'll be surprised!
The Pediatrics study, and an accompanying editorial, did a poor job advising parents what to do. The study only concluded that parents should "be aware" of the results. (Gee, thanks! Parents just learn that SpongeBob might be melting their kids' brains and they're told to be aware?!)
So I put the question to Walsh, who recently authored his latest book, Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids. If your kid is already watching a lot of SpongeBob or similar programs, what should you do?
Reduce exposure slowly, because cutting it off immediately will cause stress and make the show like "forbidden fruit" that kids want to see more, he replied. "I always tell parent to make kind of gradual switches and wean them off of SpongeBob and onto some other program."
Walsh, an advisor to PBS Kids, said PBS shows are great alternatives, because a stunning amount of child development research goes into them before they reach the airwaves. Of course, it's easier said than done to switch kids' TV tastes. By age 4, my kids thought they were too old for Caillou, a show about a preschool boy's everyday challenges. Walsh said that is a major challenge for PBS, to make its developmentally appropriate shows appealing to grade-school kids.
There's another perspective to all of this -- that inattention is just a sign of the times and that children are simply getting better at multitasking through media exposure. In the Pediatrics editorial, Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the Seattle Children's Research Institute dismissed that concept:
"There is a competing school of thought that the digital-native generation is becoming acculturated in ways that will make it well suited to the fast-paced world they will grow to inherit. Simply stated, so what if too much of a fast-paced cartoon makes children highly distractible? Distractibility is all relative. Executives of the future (if not the present) will not focus on a single task but on many concurrently while updating their Facebook status. In the 21st century, distractibility is not a liability, some argue, but an asset. It is hard for me to see (let alone acknowledge) that this is the case. Focus seems too central to wise decision-making. ... Accommodating the distractible mind will inexorably lead to a paucity of thoughtfulness that the increasingly complex and nuanced world we inhabit requires."