Brain Development and Television

Enough with the Spongebob and turn the damned thing off.  It makes you stupid.

                                                                     – Periodic comment from PracticalDad to Youngest

And just to prove that I was actually right, a University of Virginia psychology professor published a study in Pediatrics that found that four year old children who watched Spongebob did worse – in a statistically relevant way – than their peers who watched either PBS’ Caillou or just drew with markers and crayons.  In this particular study, 60 four year-old children were divided into three equal sized groups and each was to participate in that particular activity for a short period of time; at the end of the activity, each child engaged in the same particular series of tasks to test such things as the ability to delay gratification and handle games that require a series of rules.  The Spongebob kids did only half as well as those who watched either Caillou or drew.

In all fairness to Spongebob – who is actually funny in limited amounts – the issue isn’t that particular cartoon but instead, the nature and style of the program.  Caillou is a mellow cartoon that leads the viewer through a simple, plot-driven story and it doesn’t make it a habit of radically shifting gears in volume and drawing.  Years ago, one of the recurrent criticisms of Sesame Street was that the constant intersplicing of skits, cartoons and songs would hinder the development of preschool viewers and that is echoed in this particular study.  Programs such as Spongebob and others – Fairly Oddparents,  anyone? – now make Sesame Street appear to be the model in flow and style.  As one other researcher noted, "not all TV is the same. It’s not about no television, it’s really about appropriate amounts and appropriate types of television".  Watching a program such as Caillou, and I’ve watched it, does require that the child be able to focus on a particular story for a period of time without persistent and chronic interruption and the same goes for the task of drawing and coloring.  There is a level of stimulation to the brain that’s more consistent with their age than with the hyperactive Spongebob type of program.  With very small children, such simple focusing tasks do  have a cumulative effect on the ability to perform as well as to more easily shift gears from one scenario to another, keeping with their age and capacity.

I think that there’s another issue apart from the overstimulation however.  Children will often mimic what they see and that’s most certainly the case if they like something.  Spongebob glorifies stupidity and kids who’ve just watched another episode of his inanity will, at some level, want to play out what they’ve seen; immediately immersing kid viewers in a series of exercises requiring the opposite of what Spongebob promotes is setting them up for failure.  This kind of behavior is no different than that of teens who watch Dodgeball for the umpteenth time and immediately spend ten minutes tossing objects at one another, yelling if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!

As the one researcher noted, the issue isn’t the program itself, although it is indeed phenomenally dumb.  The issue is that we’re allowing the kids to spend all of this time in front of a screen without chasing them off and making them learn to do something else.  There’s value for a child to lay in his bed or look out the window and daydream, just as there’s value in drawing, playing with blocks and chasing down neighborhood kids to go play.  I understand the draw both of television to the child and of ease for the parent, but it’s a battle that’s going to have to be waged continuously until they’re out of the house.

For your own curiosity, one of the tasks asked of the kids was the Tower of Hanoi exercise, aptly named since I personally found it torturous to figure out.


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