Watching just a short bit of the wildly popular kids TV show "SpongeBob SquarePants" has been known to give many parents headaches. Psychologists have now found that a brief exposure to SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and the rest of the crew also appears to dampen preschoolers' brain power.
Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson, both of the University of Virginia's department of psychology, wanted to see whether watching fast-paced television had an immediate influence on kids' executive function -- skills including attention, working memory, problem solving and delay of gratification that are associated with success in school.
Television's negative effect on executive function over the long term has been established, the researchers wrote Monday in the journal Pediatrics, but less is known about its immediate effects.
To test what those might be, Lillard and Peterson randomly assigned 60 4-year-olds to three groups: one that watched nine minutes of a fast-paced, "very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea;" one that watched nine minutes of slower-paced programming from a PBS show "about a typical U.S. preschool-aged boy;" and a third group that was asked to draw for nine minutes with markers and crayons.
Immediately after their viewing and drawing tasks were complete, the kids were asked to perform four tests to assess executive function. Unfortunately for the denizens of Bikini Bottom, the kids who watched nine minutes of the frenetic high jinks of the "animated sponge" scored significantly worse than the other kids.
"Connecting fast-paced television viewing to deficits in executive function ... has profound impacts for children's cognitive and social development that need to be considered and reacted to," wrote University of Washington pediatrics professor Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, an authority on children and the media, in an editorial accompanying the study.
A different type of expert begged to differ. Nickelodeon, the network that airs "SpongeBob SquarePants," told CNN that "having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's targeted demo, watch 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology. It could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust." The network noted that "SpongeBob" is intended to be viewed by kids ages 6 to 11 and not by preschoolers.