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)