Watching just nine minutes of a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon hindered the attention span and impulse control of a group of 4-year-olds in a research study reported in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers led by University of Virginia psychologist Angeline Lillard assigned 60 four-year-olds to one of three groups for nine minutes of activity. One drew with markers, a second group watched Caillou, a slow-paced PBS cartoon, and a third group watched SpongeBob.
The children were next asked to perform four tasks, such as counting backward or waiting to eat a snack until given permission, designed to test their attention span and impulse control. Compared to the other two groups, the SpongeBob-watchers performed significantly worse on the tests.
Researchers chose SpongeBob because it changes scenes every 11 seconds, on average, compared to every 30 seconds in Caillou. Previous studies have linked long-term television-watching to reductions in kids' attention spans. This study suggests that problems could occur after very little exposure.
Nickelodeon, however, says SpongeBob is written for 6-year-olds, not 4-year-olds, and that the test subjects were mostly middle- and upper-class white kids. "Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's targeted demo, watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology. It could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust," says Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler.
But in a commentary accompanying the Pediatrics study, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, says fast-paced programming may not be appropriate for very young children: "What kids watch matters, it's not just how much they watch."