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 donebut 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.

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  1. by Stacey Liston

    On September 14, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    My son has been a SpongeBob nut since he was 1. He does not like shows like Caillou. I personally work with him on learning and don’t leave that up to the television to do. Actually SpongeBob has helped him. He went through a phase of using foul language, he now uses barnacles and tarter sauce in place of those words. I’m not agreeing or dis-agreeing with you, it’s just sad seeing people pick on one particular show. Personally, alot of the educational cartoons are not very interesting for young kids, thats why he likes sponge Bob. Though the most exciting learning program that my 5 year old loves is Team Umi Zoomi. Thanks!!!!!:)

  2. by Ellen Seidman

    On September 15, 2011 at 9:16 am

    This was the most level-headed thing I have read on that study so far. Thank you! No matter what, I don’t think SpongeBob is good for kids.

  3. by Carrie Simmons

    On September 15, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    To SpongeBob or not to SpongeBob
    In the travels we have done over the past eight years with our children producing Travel With Kids, there have been long periods of time with little or no access to television. While my 8 year-old is a SpongeBob fiend at home (he could watch the same episode over and over again), he can definitely go without it. I do see a difference in how he acts immediatly after the show, or if he is watching for more time than he should be during the day (we try to limit it, but sometimes life just happens), but usually the change in behavior is the same with any cartoon watching: he is bored, tired and feels lazy afterwards. When we travel and do not have T.V. readily available, the creativity increases and the imagination is used. I guess it’s finding that happy middle ground when we’re at home – a balance between no T.V., good family T.V. and letting them watch what they want for a time. Thanks for the info about the study Richard. Glad to know that letting my son watch SpongeBob isn’t going to turn his brain to seaweed!

  4. by David Kleeman

    On September 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  5. by Limiting TV Time: A Family Dinner Table Talk

    On September 16, 2011 at 10:41 am

    [...] is bad for little brains. Or wait, is it only causing problems for little brains of children under six? However you interpret this much-discussed study out of Northwestern, it’s another reason why to [...]

  6. by Lauren

    On September 16, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Thank you for this summary of the study and its major points. I appreciate the reasonable, considerate tone of this breakdown as opposed to so many other articles that attempt to draw grand, sweeping conclusions abour the show or tv in general based on this one study. As you rightly pointed out, the sample size and methods make this preliminary in nature – while the implications are intriguing, there is definitely more work to be done before any major conclusions can be drawn.

  7. by Carol

    On September 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    My son watched spongebob like nobody’s business… sang the songs, danced the dances, wore all spongebob clothes and had all spongebob toys… He is a certified genius, at the age of 13. He is already passing classes in 8th grade that my highschool student will never see, taking college prep classes. My 5 year old, youngest, is also similar in her love of spongebob… again ahead of other first graders and ahead socially than other 5 year olds. Neither have watched Calliou. You do the math… I can’t, because I haven’t been able to help my son in math since he was in the 5th grade.

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