The dangers of SpongeBob

A study released yesterday says that watching SpongeBob may be bad for kids.

This is terrible news.  My 6-year-old son Liam loves SpongeBob.  He will be devastated (and quite possibly hate me forever) if I tell him he can’t watch it anymore.

In the study, researchers from the University of Virginia took 60 4-year-olds and divided them up into three groups. Each group did a different activity for 9 minutes. One group drew with markers and crayons. Another watched a PBS cartoon about “a typical US preschool-aged boy” (I’m guessing it was Caillou). The last group watched SpongeBob. They didn’t call the show by name—they referred to is as “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea.”  Yep, SpongeBob.

After the 9 minutes, they did tests on all the children that measured “executive function.”  Executive function includes skills like paying attention, controlling impulses, solving problems, organization, or adapting to new situations. These skills are crucial for success in school and in relationships—really, for success in life.

The SpongeBob kids tanked.

I decided that before I broke the news to my little boy that his favorite cartoon character is banned, I should understand better what the study really means.  For help, I turned to my friend and colleague Dr. Michael Rich, better known as “The Mediatrician.”  Here’s what he had to say:

“This is exactly the kind of question we get at Ask the Mediatrician.  As parents, we often find out that foods or activities we previously thought were safe aren’t so good after all—and then have to decide whether or not to continue those foods or activities. Your son is not ruined for life because he watches SpongeBob, but also he won’t hate you forever if you wean him off it.

“Executive function is important. A good way to think of it is as the air traffic controller of the brain, deciding how to organize our thoughts, plan our responses, and follow through on our solutions. This study showed that preschoolers who watched SpongeBob had significantly poorer executive function immediately after watching when compared to kids who watched the slower-paced educational cartoon or drew. This makes sense – SpongeBob’s job is not to educate, or even to entertain, but to deliver uncritical eyeballs to advertisers. And he is doing a great job – those who sell sugared cereals and toys do not want your son to think critically and wait patiently for things he wants.

“What this study doesn’t tell us is about the long-term implications of short-term drops in executive function. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain, where executive function is centered, does not complete development until our mid- to late 20s. Executive function develops over a long period of time and in response to a wide variety of experiences, not just SpongeBob. One of the reasons that adult human brains are (arguably) the most complex and sophisticated in the animal kingdom is that infant brains are so undeveloped at birth.  We build our brains in response to the stimuli in our environment. Throughout childhood and adolescence, our brains are making billions of new connections, reinforcing those that are used and pruning away those less used. In theory, brain development is optimized when the challenges and stimuli stretch and push developing brains to perform skills that will help them in the future.  But in reality, we still do not know what mix of challenges and stimuli will build the best-possible brain circuits.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

“We talk about limiting TV, but this study underlines that it’s not just the time children spend watching TV but what they watch that is important. Studies have shown that kids who watched educational TV as preschoolers have better pre-reading and pre-math skills, are more ready for school, and have better social skills than their peers who watched entertainment TV. And positive outcomes persist. High school seniors who watched educational TV as preschoolers are more achievement-oriented, have fewer behavioral problems, read more and are more creative than their peers. Other studies have associated viewing “baby videos” with poorer language learning and amount of television viewed as a 1-year-old with increased attention problems at age 7. We don’t know for sure that watching baby videos or TV caused these outcomes, only that the outcomes are found more frequently among those kids.

“As with many parenting decisions, this is a choice with no definitive “right” answer.  Each family will balance the risks and benefits to each child differently. The science shows us probabilities, but parents best know each child’s needs, personality and capabilities.

“When we think about what foods we want to feed our children, we think not just about their short-term health but their long-term health too.  The same should go for how we feed our children’s minds: we need to think about not just making them happy now, but about their long-term cognitive and mental health.”

Well, okay.  I’m convinced. We will wean Liam off SpongeBob (at least we don’t have to go cold turkey; that would have been miserable all around). Our no-TV-during-the-day rule on school days already means that there’s much less Sponge Bob happening.

As for him hating me, well, it won’t be the first or last thing he hates me for. And maybe some day he’ll even thank me.

For more information on the effects of media on children visit, the Center on Media and Child Health.


Spongebob photo courtesy of Shopko Fan (Justin Hill)

15 thoughts on “The dangers of SpongeBob

  1. Of all the programs that are on televixion today, I prefer to watch Spongebob Squarepants.  Almost every other program that is on television today is made for idiots (my view only).  I would like to know if the television shows were changed to the “students”.  In other words, did the kids who watched Spongebob watch Caillou after the test and did the kids who watched Caillou watch Spongebob  after the test.  You might be surprised at the final answer. 

  2. Really? This is what you’re spending your money on? This is ridiculous. And I can’t believe you’re going to just take it away from your son. I would never do that to my child just because of this stupid study. Maybe you should try spending some time with him instead.

  3. This is one of the biggest over reactions I have ever heard of.  I can’t believe that this is what you spend your time writing about.  I know many children who are or were fans of this show and as hard as it may be to believe, they have gone on to lead very healthy and productive lives.  Miraculously, their executive function has somehow stayed intact.  
    I think that the real danger here is parents who will buy into one “fad” study and allow it to dictate the way that they raise their own children.  

    1. This article is definitely not an over reaction.  It is a reality check for parents to keep in mind what their children are exposed to when they watch TV and how relatively “harmless” entertainment programs can potentially affect their cognitive development.  The University of Virginia study is a well-designed clinical research study.  An example of a “fad” study is Dr. Oz telling the planet to avoid apple juice because of his own pseudo-research findings.

  4. I’m finding it a little presumptuous to entitle this article “The dangers of Spongebob,” when the true research seemed to present the impacts of different activities on executive function, entertainment television being the least productive. When compared to educational television and coloring, of COURSE entertainment television would show little positive contribution to critical thinking and problem solving. That is simply not its function. From a parents point of view, this research would suggest to have children engage in other activities that do promote higher executive function, not cut entertainment television, or specifically one television show that was probably only used as the variable because of its popularity as a child’s entertainment show.

  5. You don’t let 4 year olds watch Spongebob. That’s why at the beginning of each show it says in the top corner “TV 7.” Spongebob may not be educational, but at least it warns you. A group of 7 year olds already have basic skills, and the show won’t affect them. 

  6. This wouldn’t only be for Spongebob but also any cartoon that would be just entertainment like Tom & Jerry or looney toons. So u shouldn’t just signal out Spongebob. But I do feel its ok 2 give your child a little entertainment just don’t go overboard by sitting them down in front of the TV all day. Also all parents should do projects w/ their children instead of having them watch any type of show educational or not. Do some arts & crafts play board games (even monolpoly helps them to learn how 2 count) go outside play w/ them its so much healthier for ur child. So I don’t feel the statement “spongebob is bad for ur child” is completely fair maybe saying “Non-Educational Cartoons are Bad for your children” is a much better view. So if you feel a need 2 take Spongebob away look at some of those other shows as well.

  7. First rule of statistics: correlation does not equal causation. There are many variables at play here; for example, parents who allow their children to watch too much tv at a young age are probably inattentive parents in other regards, which will affect children much more than the actual television watching, I would bet. Regardless, worthless study…

    1. The relationship between correlation and causation is a complex one. Correlation is a necessary condition for causation.  Studies that demonstrate correlation provide evidence for causal relationships and add to our overall understanding of the associations at play in complex human behaviors. This study, however, used experimental design and so is able to account for many of the factors you mention through random assignment.

    2. A correlational study would have tested EF in kids who watch Spongebob vs. those who don’t. As the other person said, this is an experimental study and so causal links can be examined.

      All this study says is that, in the short term, EF function goes down after Spongebob…

      So you’re right, that is the first rule of statistics…it’s just wrong in the application

  8. As a clinician who works with young children and their parents, I think there’s a few things going on here. The types of parents who carefully consider what their children are exposed to and who are comfortable setting limits generally have other skills and traits that are going to serve their children well; these parents tend to be more educated, more emotionally mature, and better able to also set limits around the really important things, like what types of people their child is exposed to. These are also likely to be the homes where children are exposed to more language, more books, more simple toys that allow them to explore and figure out how things work. So no, it isn’t entirely low-quality TV that makes or breaks these kids.

    That being said, I’ve definitely seen the effects of limiting TV in homes that are otherwise chaotic and don’t have great parenting or opportunities for learning. Kids benefit from having the limit set and learning to cope with that, and the child and parent have to find other (usually more productive) things to do with their time.

    I’ve also long thought that Spongebob was a terrible show for children (though as an adult, I sometimes find it funny). I’ve worked with a number of children who have poor social skills and self-regulation who absolutely love Spongebob. One of them frequently will respond to things adults say to him by rapidly snapping “well you’re a crabby patty face” or making some rude noise. Sure, this child’s brain was already wired to have difficulties with these skills regardless of other input, but he also has absolutely no filter of his own in terms of knowing what to emulate, so I think he’d be a lot better served watching a show with normal, calm human-like interactions instead of impulsivity and insults.

  9. Everything in moderation.  Watching a couple episodes a week of Sponge Bob should have no lasting impact on cognitive function.  It should, however, help develop a sense of humor in the individual, which is a healthy thing.  This study, as you’ve described it, is extremely limited.  60 kids divided into 3 groups – 20 in each.  Can you really make broad generalized conclusions based on this tiny sample size?  Limiting TV viewing and being selective as to what programs are viewed is good parenting.  Making lifestyle decisions based on a small, limited study is probably over-reactionary.  If nautical nonsense is something you wish, then watch a couple episodes of Sponge Bob.  We all need an escape now and then from the pressures of our everyday lives.

  10. you are an excellent writer, I enjoy reading your insighful pieces. Tom W

  11. Yes!  Entertainment TV for kids is a modern invention.  When I think of my childhood creating games and learning to interact in a civil way with my siblings instead of today’s kids sitting in front of a screen with ZERO or very low skills in social interaction… well, it’s no surprise the violent and brutal our society is today, right?

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