MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO/AP) — It may not only be the amount of TV that kids watch causing problems, but some researchers are suggesting it’s the type of TV.
Fast-paced cartoons like “SpongeBob SquarePants” can cause short-term attention and learning problems in 4-year-olds, after just 9 minutes of watching the show, according to a new study published in the online journal “Pediatrics.”
The problems were seen in a study of 60 children randomly assigned to either watch “SpongeBob,” or the slower-paced PBS cartoon “Caillou,” or assigned to draw pictures. Immediately after these nine-minute assignments, the kids took mental function tests; those who had watched “SpongeBob” did measurably worse than the others.
Previous research has linked TV-watching with long-term attention problems in children, but the new study suggests more immediate problems can occur after very little exposure — results that parents of young kids should be alert to, the study authors said.
The results should be interpreted cautiously because of the study’s small size, but the data seem robust and bolster the idea that media exposure is a public health issue, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis. He is a child development specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.
Christakis said parents need to realize that fast-paced programming may not be appropriate for very young children.
“What kids watch matters, it’s not just how much they watch,” he said.
Becca Swiler, the director of the Child Development Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said that since parents are leading increasingly busy lives, they are more inclined to park their kids in front of the TV.
Swiler also pointed to problems with the study. The researchers didn’t screen the young people to set a baseline before watching the TV programs.
“If you have a parent dead-set against television, and then a child suddenly is exposed to SpongeBob Squarepants, instead of a more sedate program, you’re gonna get a different reaction,” Swiler said.
Many adults watched cartoons as kids, and those programs were often more violent than some of the cartoons today. But in the 1970s, the typical young person started watching TV around age 4. Today a young person starts watching TV at 4 months.
Also, the number of channels and cartoon options has exploded.
“The sheer number of hours and content has changed dramatically,” Swiler said.
So while in the 1970s, the typical child watched 2 to 3 hours of TV a day, today total screen time for kids is up to 8 hours a day.
“People have widely varying opinions on this. I would say it does affect their development. If nothing else, in terms of the ability to interact with real people, one to one, in real time,” Swiler said.