SpongeBob SquarePants and Your Child’s Attention Span

SpongeBob has been blamed for pushing differing agendas over the years. Back in 2005 some religious groups accused the program of pushing a pro-gay agenda. Last month, Fox News decided that the children’s program was decidedly on the side of the anthropogenic climate change proponents.

The latest attack on half dressed sponge comes from a report from Reuters “Press Pediatricians’ [sic] group finds fault with “SpongeBob””.

Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will take aim at the 12-year-old Nickelodeon show, reporting a study that concludes the fast-paced show, and others like it, aren’t good for children.

More on the media’s interpretation of the paper at Yahoo

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 others.

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 said.

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.

However, Nestor Lopez-Duran at Child-psych blog has more details and a more reasoned take on the study.

I rapidly realized that the AAP was not taking any position against SpongeBob at all, and that the AP article was entirely misleading (most likely because the reporter may not know how the AAP publication process works).

At issue is a small study that will be published this week in the journal Pediatrics, which is the main journal of the AAP. The AAP PR office sent a press release this weekend about the study, just as they do about many of the studies to be published this week. Such a press release is simply an attempt to get publicity for the journal but does not at any level imply that the AAP itself endorses the results of the study as conclusive.

Part of the problem is that the study itself is not available yet; the reports are coming from a press release by the journal “Pediatrics”

…it seems that the authors compared 4-year-old kids who completed 3 tasks: 1. Watch Spongebob for 9 minutes. 2. watch another slower-paced cartoon, or 3. draw pictures. After this experiment, the kids completed a task of “inhibitory control,” in which they had to wait before they could eat candy.

The results suggested that those who watched Spongebob were more impulsive (aka ate the candy sooner) than the kids in the other two groups. I may make additional comments about this study once I read it, but this is not entirely surprising given that SpongeBob is fast-paced and would increase physiological arousal, which in turn will decrease inhibitory control.

Again, as in so many cases, the media makes headlines and stories with more interest in attracting eyeballs than in being accurate.

It seems that the conclusions by the authors were pretty appropriate. They stated to the AP that the study suggests that parents should not have young kids watch SpongeBob or any other fast-paced TV show immediately before they need to do activities that require concentration, such as going to preschool or kindergarten. This makes sense, just as it makes sense that kids should not be running around before going to bed.

So the issue is not really about SpongeBob, but about the simple phenomenon that “excitement” can reduce inhibitory control.

The impact of electronics such as computers, games, and television is constantly being examined in both the scientific community and the media. The media’s constant demand for attention does not help in serious debate. Can we get reporters and editors to watch Caillou instead of SpongeBob before publishing and pay attention to what they write?

I think that we should be concerned for our children who watch SpongeBob for another reason as one of the main characters Mr. Krabs,

Eugene H Krabs

is actually The Kurgen from the original Highlander movie, both played by Clancy Brown.

The Kurgan

Now that’s a role model.

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