Child developmental experts are always cautioning parents to limit the amount of television a child watches per day to one hour or less. They say it causes long-term attention problems. A limited study, published on online September 2, 2011 in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests the consequences could be even more drastic.

According to the study, a mere 9 minutes of exposure to programs like Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob Square Pants can cause attention problems, developmental delays memory problems in young children. Although living in a pineapple under the sea would seem to improve the imagination, the fast-paced motion of the animated cartoon have been shown to cause short-term attention and learning problems in 4-year-olds. Other cartoons that are slower paced, and geared more toward child development, like the popular Caillou on public television, do not seem to have the same effect.

In a study of 60 children randomly assigned to draw pictures, watch SpongeBob, or watch Caillou. Immediately after viewing 9-minute segments of the shows all of the children were given a mental function test. The children who watched SpongeBob did “measurably worse” than the other groups.

Dr Dimitri Christakis, child development specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, wrote an editorial accompanying the study.  He also appeared on the radio show NPR on Thursday, September 15.  According to Dr. Christakis, parents need to realize that fast-paced programming many not be something they want their children exposed to. “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. “What kids watch matters, it’s not just how much they watch,” he said.

University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard, the lead author of the study, said Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob shouldn’t be singled out. Her findings were that other fast-paced programs are just as detrimental. 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 takes issue to the findings and said the targeted audience for SpongeBob SquarePants is 6-11, not four-year-olds. “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,” he said.

Lillard said four-year-olds were chosen because that age “is the heart of the period during which you see the most development” in certain self-control abilities. The children were given common mental function tests after watching cartoons or drawing. The SpongeBob kids scored on average 12 points lower than the other two groups, whose scores were nearly identical. In another test, measuring self-control and impulsiveness, kids were rated on how long they could wait before eating snacks presented when the researcher left the room.  SpongeBob kids waited about 2 1/2 minutes on average, versus at least four minutes for the other two groups. The study has several limitations. For one thing, the kids weren’t tested before they watched TV. But Lillard said none of the children had been diagnosed with attention problems, and all got similar scores on parent evaluations of their behavior. They were also all white children, from wealthy homes.

I am Ron White, and I am a memory-training expert, and two-time USA Memory Champion. I was amazed to learn this about the popular cartoon and the results of the study on memory, however I would like to see a much broader and more scientific study conducted before I could form a judgment on this subject.



WebMD – Fast-paced Cartoons May Hurt Kids’ Attention, and Memory:

NPR – How Can Parents Navigate Children’s TV Shows?: – SpongeBob SquarePants causes learning problems – study: