Leave SpongeBob SquarePants alone!
Now we’re warned that the popular cartoon turns kids into dimwits. Yet another pointless guilt-trip for parents.
According to the latest cutting-edge scientific study, kids who watch SpongeBob SquarePants are at higher risk of underperforming than kids who don’t. Yes, the American cartoon about a set of colourful characters living in an underwater city called Bikini Bottom has now joined the endless list of Stuff that Messes Kids Up According to The Science.
Four-year-old SpongeBob watchers who participated in the study did measurably worse on various tests than their peers who watched slower-paced shows or drew pictures. The study results seem to confirm every parent’s secret dread. In settling their kids down in front of SpongeBob, so that they can read the newspaper in peace, put dinner on the table or simply enjoy a lie-in, parents are apparently condemning their children to a life of academic failure and social awkwardness.
The study, published last week in the American journal Pediatrics, explained that researchers from the University of Virginia randomly divided 60 four-year-olds into three groups. One group watched a nine-minute clip of SpongeBob SquarePants, a second group watched nine minutes of Caillou, a gently paced Canadian cartoon about a pre-school boy, and the third group spent nine minutes drawing pictures. Immediately afterwards, all children took a series of tests measuring their mental facilities and self-control. The children who had watched SpongeBob performed worse than the others. They did particularly poorly in the ‘marshmallow test’. All the kids were given marshmallows and while the SpongeBob group devoured theirs in just over two minutes, the other children held out twice as long.
David Bittler, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, which broadcasts SpongeBob, challenged the test’s validity. He said, somewhat defensively, that while the test participants were four years old, the cartoon is aimed at kids aged six to 11. He also added that ‘Having 60 non-diverse 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.’
Dr Dimitri Christakis, a paediatric researcher who has linked television viewing to attention-deficit disorder, wrote an editorial in Pediatrics expressing caution about the SpongeBob study’s sample size and the as-yet unclear duration of the ‘SpongeBob effect’. However, he also suggested that if the effect could be confirmed it would strengthen the case for treating early media-exposure as a public-health issue!
The SpongeBob scare is only the latest in a regular litany of science stories that play on and bolster parents’ insecurities. In the past few weeks alone there have been several such stories. For instance, there was the one about how babies of women who were depressed during pregnancy are likely to become bullies as toddlers. Another one claimed that mothers who carry the ‘harshness’ gene (two copies of the D2 gene) tend to treat their children harshly when confronted with bad news about the economy.
Of course, most of us ignore the vast majority of these studies out of necessity. If we took them all to heart, we’d never even make it out of the house. But we can’t ignore all the news all the time – and when they’re about activities as banal as watching cartoons, these sorts of stories become seriously problematic for parents.
Studies like the one on the SpongeBob effect are problematic in their own terms. They are often methodologically weak: looking at small numbers of children, discounting associations such as socio-economic status, promiscuously conflating correlation with causation, and so on. But the bigger issue is the way they are reported and received. Experiments, even flawed ones, ultimately add to our knowledge and sometimes lead to interesting conclusions. Problems arise with the expectation that science, even in a half-baked form, should guide our individual behaviour or – even worse – inform policy decisions.
So don’t cartoons shape children’s developing brains in detrimental ways, then? Well, there really is no convincing evidence that this happens. Our brain development reflects our experience. If children did nothing but watch SpongeBob or other fast-paced cartoons, it’s conceivable that their brain development might reflect that. However, it is not at all clear what consequences it might have. In any case, neuroplasticity lasts throughout life. We change our circumstances and our brains adapt accordingly. SpongeBob is not destiny. As kids grow up, they will eventually become bored of the world of Bikini Bottom.
Much of this is common sense, or at least it should be. After all, many of today’s parents were themselves raised on a steady diet of Looney Tunes cartoons. But, somehow, scare stories about the effects of television viewing seem to make a disproportionate impact today, to the point where mothers and fathers actually admit to lying to other people about how much television they let their children watch.
The problem of ‘screen time’ – the new-fangled appellation designed to take into account computer use and video games in addition to television viewing – leads to untold parental guilt because it flies in the face of everything that ‘good parents’ are supposed to do with their children. We are constantly reminded about the importance of spending time with our children or at the very least making sure they are engaged in constructive, age-appropriate activities. As the organisers of Screen-Free Week, an annual campaign to convince families not to watch TV or play on computers, explain in their literature: ‘Excessive screen time is harmful for children. Time with screens is linked to poor school-performance, childhood obesity and attention problems. And it is primarily through screens that children are exposed to harmful marketing.’
The problem is that many of the ways in which children once passed their time – activities like taking a walk, playing in the yard or cycling around the neighbourhood – are now impossible without parental escort. Parents find themselves in the no-win position of being unable to give their children real alternatives to watching television or playing computer games, and then being condemned for messing up their kids’ brains if they fall back on SpongeBob.
Rather than allowing family life to be reduced to a project of balancing one potential danger (watching cartoons) against another (playing outside until dinner’s done), we’d be better off ignoring the research all together. SpongeBob may or may not put children in the mood to focus or to wait before eating their marshmallows. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Why? Because children – and adults – watch cartoons for the sake of entertainment. Cartoons don’t have to make us smarter or teach us impulse control. They just make us laugh and then, because we are adaptable creatures, we move on to other things.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.
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