Fast-paced Television Harms Preschoolers? Why the SpongeBob Study is Like the Perfect Piece of SPANX

Is SpongeBob sucking the smarts out of kids?  So hints a new study showing 4-year olds who watched a mere 9 minutes of the infamous cartoon did worse on memory and attention tests than kids shown an educational program or given crayons and paper. 

Why the malicious effects?

The researchers suggest the fast-paced segments in the aquatic toon may require more brain power to process and thus ultimately sap focus and other cognitive resources.

The study, published online last week at the journal of Pediatrics, adds to the Bad TV Lit that features all sorts of ill effects like childhood obesity and ADHD-like behavior.  This one stands out for being an experiment and also boasting nearly immediate effects.  It's no surprise manic cartoons prolong homework time and disrupt sleep.  Makes sense.   

This study is small but kinda first glance.

Not so much on second glance. 

True, when preschoolers faced the "fast-paced" versus "educational" show (i.e. Caillou) or crayons, the Sponge viewers generally showed less self-control and more trouble concentrating and remembering: more difficulty saying numbers backwards, stacking blocks, playing a slightly modified "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and my personal fave, trying not to gobble up mini-marshmallows or Goldfish.

Hmmm.  Is SpongeBob usurping brain cells because of it's manic pace or something else? 

Like it's "fantastical" nature?  Not my word, take it from the authors who define the show as "a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea."  Anyone who's watched, perhaps even two seconds, can see it is far from realistic and as such requires some extra processing.  But what about the other show?  Only in academia is Caillou, that extraordinarily whiny bald brat with overly patient and permissive parents, regarded as "a typical US preschool-aged boy."  In other words, a realistic one.  I think it's reasonable to wonder if Caillou is "realistic" or even "educational."  What about you?

So it's anyone's guess whether the results are due to a show's pace, realistic nature or really, anything else that differs between the two shows (e.g., tendency to induce physiological arousal?) - actually between SpongeBob and drawing (I'll get to that in a minute).

It's also worth wondering if other fast-paced cognitively demanding tasks have a similar effect - like gym class. It would be hard to argue the harmful nature of exercise among school children.  I assume no one wants to argue observing highly fanciful or creative works is harmful either.  Or anything that increases physical arousal....where's my latte, anyhow?

But here's my real issue with the SpongeBob study: how the researchers dressed their data. 

Sounds technical but actually it's very simple.  Instead of reporting individual test results for all 4 cognitive tasks, the authors threw the 3 attention/memory ones into one composite score.  Glancing at the results graph, it makes me suspicious that a couple of those significant tests didn't turn out significant.  In other words, the results only came out okay (as predicted, wink wink) when thrown together.   In fact, even in the composite score, there was only a signficant difference between the SpongeBobs and the Artists.  Not between either the two tv groups or the Artists vs. Caillous.  So it gets difficult to attribute results to fast-paced tv when the two tv groups didn't differ.  There's more than pace that differentiates tv shows from free drawing.  In a good experiment, the researchers only manipulate one variable at a time so we know what actually spurred effects. 

Also raising curiosity - on the graph the Caillou kiddies looked like they outperformed the Artists on one task (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes) - now explain that.  The authors don't report that signficance test, any guesses why not?

So although the SpongeBob kids look to have fared poorly it's not clear on how many tasks.  Was it on all 3 tests, 1 or just the composite?  Who knows. Actually, the researchers do but they never tell us.

I don't like most cartoons, never did.  Kids television, don't get me started - but I will say preschoolers have it way good compared to the 9, 10, 11 year olds.  Even so I can't square the results of this study with the supposed pernicious effects emanating from the square-bodied porous cartoon character. 

Especially that composite score.

You can see how it is like the Spanx of the research set.  Not only is that composite score squeezing a few parts into one smooth whole it's also concealing some flaws.

Read the study for free. 

The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function. Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson.  Pediatrics; originally published online September 12, 2011.  DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919


TherExtras said...

I can always count on you, Polly, to crunch the numbers for me. Good call.

I don't follow the same line of thinking that "if other fast-paced cognitively demanding tasks have a similar effect - like gym class".

(Passive) fast paced visuals have a much different effect on neuronal activity than the visual input from moving oneself.

Not surprisingly, I deem the latter as more beneficial to children - and think I can find the data to support my bias.

;) Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Barbara! Good to "hear" from ya! I hear you on the difference between active and passive "fast-paced" behavior.

Okay so gym class is a stretch, no pun intended. But I was trying to think of something else fast-paced with lots of cognitive demands, maybe Nascar racing? Remember Jazzercising? Playing tennis? You do have to watch the ball and other player, and they both can move very fast!!Obviously dodge ball might not be the best example...

One of the most fitting examples would be video games that have shown a mixed bag of "effects". Some supposed benefits, others, as you know, disadvantages.

Uggh. Okay, you got me!!!