The “SpongeBob Study”: Sorting Through The Science For Take-Home Messages
By now, nearly all parents have not only heard about the “SpongeBob Study,” but have formed an opinion about it. That said, I’d still like to ask – and answer – some questions about the study just in case you are still formulating what you think and want some clarification about the details of the research.
Why did the researchers want to find out if SpongeBob SquarePants is bad for kids? This was not a study about SpongeBob SquarePants. Nor was it a study about the content of that program. This research was done to see if preschoolers “executive function” – a number of cognitive skills that include attention and delay of gratification – was immediately influenced by the pace of a television show.
So why did they focus on SpongeBob SquarePants? They considered SpongeBob SquarePants to be fast-paced (because scenes changed every 11 seconds) and compared it to Caillou, which served as an example of a slower-paced program (scenes changed every 30 seconds). They showed 20 4-year-olds 9 minutes of a SpongeBob SquarePants episode. They showed a different group of 20 4-year olds 9 minutes of a Caillou episode. And they had a different group of 20 4-year-olds not watch TV and have markers and crayon and paper available for drawing. Then they administered a number of executive function tasks. All of this was done in a child development laboratory (make what you want of that).
What did they find out? The group that watched SpongeBob SquarePants had lower average scores on the executive function tasks compared to the other two groups. These tasks were done immediately after the kids either watched their assigned TV show or drew pictures.
So this means SpongeBob SquarePants is bad for kids? Here’s where it becomes a matter of interpretation. SpongeBob Squarepants is designed for kids who are 6 and older (the target audience is 6-11), whereas Caillou is pitched at preschoolers. So to me the only potential implication of the study is that if preschoolers watch a show that’s not designed for their age group, it may have an impact on their immediate cognitive functioning.
Isn’t that bad? Well, I’m not totally convinced yet by the data (this is just my take from reading the article in Pediatrics). Most importantly, assuming the effects are real, we don’t know how long they would last (if they are very transient that would have very different implications than if they were shown to extend for longer periods of time). Furthermore, I perceive this study to be preliminary: it used a small sample that was not representative of the population; it could have profited from more extensive baseline assessments of the kids; and it was not reported how many kids (it might not be all of them) in the SpongeBob condition had lower executive function performance. This doesn’t mean that the study was badly done – but it needs to be replicated with a more powerful design before we start making evidence-based recommendations to parents.
What about Caillou? Lost in all of the frenzy generated by this study is that watching Caillou was no different than drawing and coloring in terms of effects on immediate executive function. That doesn’t inherently mean that Caillou is good for children: it just means that in this experiment it didn’t have an effect of task performance as compared to drawing and coloring.
So what should parents take away from this study and the debate surrounding it? First, it’s a big leap to take the results of one (preliminary) study and translate them into recommendations for parenting practices. Second, do not confuse the emphasis on pace with content — this study said nothing (pro or con) about the content of the shows. Third, keep in mind that the published targeted age groups for a given show are there for a number of reasons and you may want to attend to them (your choice of course, but it’s information to bring to your decision-making process). If there is any extrapolation to be done from this research, you may want to limit your preschooler’s viewing of age-inappropriate shows right before they need to do something else important – like getting ready for bedtime. This would be good advice even if this study was never conducted.