Is SpongeBob Bad for Your Preschooler's Brain?
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We all know that TV isn’t the best thing for us (or our kids), but can TV actually hinder our brain power? A recent study released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in their journal Pediatrics found that brief exposure to Nickelodeon’s famed TV series “SpongeBob SquarePants” impeded preschoolers’ attention span and executive functions. It argues that the fast-paced storytelling and quick cuts of the Bikini Bottom show are decreasing smarts in preschoolers.
Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says that the show “deprives children of opportunities to explore in a leisurely and in-depth way, which is essential to learning.”
A group of 20 4-year-olds were tested after watching SpongeBob for just 19 minutes, and compared against another group of 20 children who watched Caillou, a slower-paced popular PBS show. A final group of preschoolers colored for 9 minutes and steered clear of the tube.
The kids who watched SpongeBob, which changed scenes every 11 seconds, did significantly worse on tests than both the Caillou kids, and those who colored. The theory is that overstimulation during the time when a child’s brain is developing makes it harder to focus on sustained tasks later on. Reps for Nickelodeon argue that SpongeBob is intended for kids 6-9 years old, though the show itself is heavily marketed to and for preschoolers. While the study comes with loads of its own caveats, the results of the study are just another confirmation of what researchers have been saying for years.
What to Look For
So what can parents do about it? If you are going to allow your preschooler screen time (and chances are they’re going to get it anyway), there are a couple of things every parent should look for in a good TV show for their kids.
- Who’s misbehaving? Linn says that it’s important to remember that children learn through modeling. TV (or any other theater experience) provides kids with opportunities to model behavior, and for this reason, parents should seek out TV shows which model the kinds of behavior parents want to see in their kids. Regardless of the show’s purported educational purpose, ask yourself if characters like SpongeBob, Dora, or any others, are behaving how you might want your child to behave.
- Pacing matters. Children need to time explore concepts, make connections, and soak up information. TV shows with quick cuts, fast-paced plotlines, and hectic hijinks can deprive children of the time and the space needed to learn in a meaningful way. Linn says, “Just because you may be bored watching children’s programming, doesn’t mean your child will be bored.” Look for shows that allow children to learn at a leisurely pace and explore the concepts being presented.
- Pay attention to bragging. Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Children’s Media Lab, says that television producers have to put their money where their mouth is. Her most recent research found that programs making specific claims like, "this show teaches kids their ABCs," tend to include more learning strategies, compared to shows that say they "inspire" learning. "Basically, shows that make explicit claims do so because they know they can back it up with curriculum based objectives, goals , and the way they assemble the content," she says.
- Read the credits. Linebarger also says parents should "look for shows with a clear curriculum behind them. You’ll notice education consultants listed in the credits and on the website, and they will clearly lay out what the curriculum is. Why? Because there’s been obvious forethought in putting together a program using strategies that help kids learn.” The credits can give you a clue about the educational chops behind the show.