Your kids may love a certain cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the sea, but watching fast-paced fantastical TV shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants” could impair preschoolers’ development of mental skills that are key to academic success, suggests a new University of Virginia study, which will be published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.
University of Virginia researchers tested four-year-old kids immediately after they had watched nine minutes of the popular “SpongeBob” TV show, and found that the children’s executive function—the ability to pay attention, solve problems, and regulate behavior—had been “severely compromised,” compared to kids who had watched nine minutes of the slower-paced, realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon “Caillou,” or kids who spent nine minutes drawing pictures. Here’s a closer look at the findings—and how parents can use them to decide which TV shows are most appropriate for younger kids.
Which mental skills were tested? All 60 of the kids in the study, whether they watched cartoons or drew pictures with crayons and markers, were given tests immediately afterward to evaluate their executive function. The tests measured how well they followed rules, remembered what they’d been told, and were able to postpone gratification (eating a small snack of marshmallows or goldfish crackers right away, versus waiting a few minutes to eat a larger snack).
What is executive function and why is it important? Executive function is an umbrella term for a variety of essential mental skills. It’s what helps kids learn to be organized, make plans, remember important details (such as when to hand in their homework or study for an upcoming exam), solve problems, multi-task, set goals, and develop the self-discipline necessary to do well in school and daily acitivites. In kids with certain disorders, such as ADHD and autism, executive function is typically impaired, leading to limited self-control, impulsivity, disorganization, and poor judgment.
Do slower-paced cartoons affect executive function? In the study, there were no significant differences in test performance between the kids who watched “Caillou,” a realistic, educational cartoon featuring a typical preschool boy, and the control group of kids who drew pictures.
Why did watching “SpongeBob” for a few minutes have such a dramatic short-tem effect? The researchers theorize that there may be two reasons for the negative impact on mental skills. “It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child’s ability to concentrate immediately afterward,” said lead researcher Angeline Lillard, PhD, a psychology professor at University of Virginia. “Another possibility is that children identify with unfocused and frenetic characters, and then adopt their characteristics.”
Could watching cartoons like “SpongeBob” have any lasting effects? The researchers say that four-year-olds are in an important stage of brain development and what they watch on TV may impact lifelong learning. “Executive function is extremely important to children’s success in school and in everyday life,” says Lillard. However, the study was small and only looked at the immediate effects. So far, studies haven’t evaluated the long-term effects on preschoolers, if any, of watching cartoons.
What’s the takeaway for parents? Consider the study findings when deciding which shows younger kids are allowed to watch, Lillard advises. “Parents should know that children who have just watched ‘SpongeBob Squarepants,’ or shows like it, might become compromised in their ability to learn and behave with self-control.”
How much TV should preschoolers watch? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids age two or older watch no more than one to two hours of quality programming per day, while kids under two shouldn’t watch TV at all. While TV, in moderation, can have positive effects, such as helping kids learn the alphabet by watching educational kids’ programs, or teaching them about wildlife through nature shows, being glued to the tube for long periods increases risk for childhood obesity and reduces time for healthy physical and social activities that benefit brain development.