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Is SpongeBob Corrupting Your Kids?

A Screen Capture of SpongeBob SquarePants

Well, not just SpongeBob, but fast-paced kids programming in general. A study out of the University of Virginia suggests that short exposure (9 minutes) to fast-paced programs (the study used SpongeBob as their example) had a significant effect on cognitive tests immediately after. Most studies I have heard of compared long-term effects of watching such shows on children’s development, so this was intriguing to me. The same study found no significant difference between slower-paced shows (exemplified by the PBS show Caillou) and students who were simply asked to draw for the nine minute period. Here is a taste of the story on this from the Arizona Daily Star:

The results should be interpreted cautiously because of the study’s small size, but the data seem robust and bolster the idea that media exposure is a public health issue, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a child development specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital who wrote an editorial accompanying the study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

Christakis said parents need to realize that fast-paced programming may not be appropriate for very young children. “What kids watch matters; it’s not just how much they watch,” he said.

University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard, the lead author, said Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob” shouldn’t be singled out. She found similar problems in kids who watched other fast-paced cartoon programming.

She said parents should realize that young children are compromised in their ability to learn and use self-control immediately after watching such shows. “I wouldn’t advise watching such shows on the way to school or any time they’re expected to pay attention and learn,” she said.

Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler disputed the findings and said “SpongeBob SquarePants” is aimed at kids ages 6-11, not 4-year-olds. “Having 60 nondiverse kids, who are not part of the show’s targeted (audience), watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust,” he said.

Read the rest of the piece here. The discussion of the design of the study is crucial to the application of the results. Yes, SpongeBob is “aimed” at older kids than those studied, but does Nickelodeon really believe that no four years olds watch the show in the morning before heading off to pre-school? Why does the diversity matter? Yes, I would prefer that a more diverse sample would more easily generalize, but I’m not sure why it should matter here, especially based on the provisos already offered by the authors. As for questionable methodology, if the goal is to see if there is an immediate effect due to even short-term exposure then the study seems reasonably designed to get at just that bit of information. If the study claimed the results generalized to a long-term effect, or some sort of cumulative effect, then I would agree that the methodology was inappropriate.
As it is, I don’t see any problem with the methodology for this study, but would suggest the small sample size (relatively) indicates that the results should be verified by further, larger, studies. Interesting discussion, but I fear that Nickelodeon is only worried about the design because they seem to specialize in fast-paced kids fodder, and fear informed parents might cut their kids off.
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