A Sept 12 AP article pointed to a study published in the journal Pediatrics whose findings suggest that frenetically-paced cartoons like Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” hinders young childrens’ attention spans and problem solving abilities. And it seems that everyone and their mother—actually, a whole lot of mothers—weighed in on it. The study took a group of 60 4-year-olds and exposed them to 1 of 3 activities for 9 minutes: watching SpongeBob, watching a slower-paced PBS cartoon called “Caillou” and drawing with markers (sans TV). The SpongeBob group showed hindered executive function when tested after performing the activities, suggesting that exposure to fast-paced programming may be harmful to your kids.
A spokesman for Nickelodeon fired back with a few critiques of the study. First, he said the sample size, despite being too small, did not represent the show’s targeting demo—kids over the age of 6. Another fault, found by Jane Gould, senior vice president of Consumer Insights for Nickelodeon/ MTVN Kids and Family Group, was that parents in the study were asked to describe their kids’ ability to concentrate. Her point being: When asked, what parent would admit to a less-than-attentive child? In addition, said Gould in an ABC news report, the group of kids was not diverse—all kids were white and mid- to upper-middle class. The article also rightly points out that violence in cartoons has been on the minds of parents for ages. The violence in the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons has been singled out by researchers in the past and at one point Reverend Jerry Falwell claimed Teletubby “Tinky Winky” was a gay role model. So maybe SpongeBob isn’t our only fall guy here.
Plenty others had something to say about the study. This article notes, with the help of reader feedback, that other cartoons have been questioned by parents for years—take “Tom and Jerry”’s violent escapades and numerous Looney Tunes as examples—and suggests casting blame on parents who let their kids “vegetate in front of the TV for hours on end.” This humorous take from a Salt Lake Tribune columnist calls attention to numerous baby boomer cartoons that are just as “bad,” and notes the “enormously tedious” quality of “Caillou,” the other show watched by the kids. For him, death by boredom is a more likely detriment.
And we mustn’t forget the mommy bloggers. This one lists 10 more shows that parents should be wary of, if they choose to trust the study’s findings and steer clear of fast-paced kids’ shows. They include “Phineas and Ferb,” “The Backyardigans,” “Yo Gabba Gabba” and “Power Rangers.” She wonders whether they’re really so bad. Here, it’s not a network or a show that’s to blame, if there’s blame to be placed at all.
Another mom, who’s also a doctor, surveys the mommy blogger/doctor mom scene to find that many think it’s silly to vilify cartoon characters. One doctor questions whether a 9-minute timeout or a 9-minute rough-housing session with dad would yield similar effects from 4-year-olds. And a truly scary thought is raised: the study might fuel mommy wars. PBS mommies vs. Nickelodeon mommies. A terrifying prospect. The point is, plenty of doctors, moms and bloggers have trouble with the study’s findings. And like Dr. Mom says, it’s more a small piece of the puzzle than something on which to base your parental acumen. Not the best PR for SpongeBob, but at least, when the world weighs in, it’s clear there is more at play here than the villainous residents of Bikini Bottom.