My 3-year-old niece, like many children her age, is absolutely obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants. It is her all-time favorite cartoon. So as you can image, I was taken slightly aback by the recent study conducted by Dr. Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson which suggests that SpongeBob SquarePants and other fast-paced cartoons may negatively affect executive function in young children. Executive function refers to a group of brain processes which include planning, attention, abstract thinking, working memory, problem solving, and more. In this study, Lillard and Peterson set out to measure the immediate effects of watching SpongeBob on young children’s executive function compared to the effects of watching an educational cartoon or coloring.
Participants included 60 four-year-old children,. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each group participated in a different activity for the duration of nine minutes. The first group watched “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea,” clearly referring to SpongeBob SquarePants. The second group watched “a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US preschool-aged boy,” rumored to be Caillou. Finally, the third group colored with crayons and markers. Immediately following the activity, participants were administered a number of tasks that measured executive function.
The results showed that the participants who watched SpongeBob SquarePants displayed significantly poorer performances on the executive function tasks as compared to both the participants who colored and the participants who watched the educational cartoon. These results remained significant after controlling for age, attention, and television exposure.
Lillard and Peterson’s findings suggest that watching cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants for even a brief period of time may have immediate negative effects on young children’s executive function. The authors speculate that these impairments may be due to the fast-paced structure of SpongeBob SquarePants, which changes scenes an average of every 11 seconds while the educational cartoon changes scenes an average of every 34 seconds. The authors also speculate that the whimsical content depicted in SpongeBob SquarePants, as compared to the more realistic content shown in the educational cartoon, may have something to do with the impairments observed in this study.
So how should parents respond to these findings? I would like to point out that this study only addresses the immediate effects of cartoon exposure and does not address how long these effects last. With that said, I do not think that SpongeBob should be vilified over these findings, and I do not think that my niece should stop watching her favorite cartoon altogether. Rather, I feel it is up to parents to make informed decisions about what their child watches and how much time their child is allowed to spend in front of the television.
Lillard, A. S., & Peterson, J. (in press). The immediate impact of different types of television on young children’s executive function. Pediatrics, 128. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919