Will SpongeBob SquarePants rot your child's brain?

I want to reach for the salt shaker when I read words like: “New research on children and television has …” because I know I’ll probably need a few grains to swallow whatever’s coming next. Do we really need any more research on “children and television?” Based on 23 years of parenting, here’s all you need to know:  1) Too much is bad. 2) Parents should know (and monitor) what their children are watching. 3) Be prepared to discuss it. 4) Rinse and repeat.
But no, they’ve got to beat up on SpongeBob, who is entertaining, and on the moral-repugnance scale, pretty darn innocuous.

Researchers report that 4-year-olds who had just watched the fast-paced fantasy cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants” … did worse on tests of attention and problem-solving than young children who watched a slower-paced educational program or spent time drawing.

The tests were administered immediately after the children watched the program and were designed to assess what is known as children’s executive function, which underlies attention, working memory, problem-solving and the delay of gratification. The children were given tasks that involved following instructions, reversing the order of numbers and resisting treats.

“The children who watched the cartoon were operating at half the capacity compared to other children,” said Angeline S. Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and one of the paper’s authors. Got that? The children were tested “immediately” after watching a fast-paced program. Maybe the program is not the problem, but the timing of the test. I wouldn’t do well on many tests of memory, “executive function” and so forth after 45 minutes running on my treadmill. Kids sometimes need to unwind or refocus after certain activities; it doesn’t make the activity harmful. As for “resisting treats”—that’s laughable. Show me a 4-year-old who does that at the best of times. And while we’re on the topic, Sponge Bob is not meant for 4-year-olds.

[Professor Lillard] said the effect was not specific to “SpongeBob SquarePants” and has also been demonstrated with other fast-paced cartoons in which “there are lot of things happening that can’t happen in real life — magical things going on in totally new places… Like watching an Obama speech and trying to imagine how a country that’s already broke can go trillions and quadrillions of dollars further into debt? Maybe time to change the channel on those too. “There is so much stuff that’s hard to assimilate, it might be disrupting the child’s thinking process, so they may not be able to grasp the messages that are educational,” Dr. Lillard said. “This suggests the brain is working very hard to register it all and gets exhausted afterward.” Which sounds a lot like what happens in a child’s mind when they are engaged in competitive team sports, or say, an average day at school.
But the study is really important (it had better be, for what it cost taxpayers). It’s one of the first studies to use a control group and randomization in order to measure the impact of different types of TV shows on kids, claims Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, director of behavior and development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“It’s important for parents to know that not all viewing is the same. It’s not just about turning the TV off, but about changing the channel,” Dr. Christakis said. You’re half right, Doctor. Not all viewing is the same. Some children’s shows are clever and entertaining; some are deadly dull; some (and this includes a few politically correct ‘educational’ shows) are downright stupid. Should I encourage my children to watch shows they can’t stand because some self-styled educational expert has declared them to be beneficial? Frankly, they get enough education during our lengthy and gruelling (at least in their opinion) hours of homeschooling. When they watch TV, they want to relax and have a little fun. So do I.

And yes, sorry, but is mainly about turning off the TV, and doing other stuff instead. It’s what makes you a well-rounded person, so you can enjoy Sponge Bob as well as Shakespeare, which my children do. Come to think of it, didn’t the bard pen a play called Tempest in a Teapot or something like that?

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