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.

Comments (17)
  1. Jake says:

    spongebob has to be one of the DUMBEST animated characters that I have ever witnessed. Do you people understand that there are SENIORS who are infatuated with this nonsensical icon? Bring back the Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, Jonny Quest, Loony Tunes, that were pure GENIUS in cartoon animation and humor.

    1. em0886-14 says:

      I have to say that SpongBob is pretty funny at times!! I miss Ren and Stimpy…but the shows my son really enjoys is Dora, Diego, Wonder Pets and the Backyardigans. I like these shows because the first two teach spanish, how to help others, numbers, shaps, colors, etc. and the others are great too because they teach about team work and many other educational concepts.

  2. oNiSac says:

    I think T.V. could be so much better than it is for both children and adults. There is very little on T.V. that I want to watch. I have 4 adult children and 9 grand children whom have grown up watching this stuff. It teaches “nothing” that I prefer they watch. Its no wonder our world has become so astray form principles, ethic’s, and morals.

    1. Mike says:

      Your so right! You just have to wonder what the professionally elite were watching and grew up to charge so much money for services. Take for example; $1200 for a crown by a dentist, $236 for a blood test for chicken pox exposure, $560 for 2.5′ of copper tubing by a plumber or $275 an hour by an attorney! Morality has sunken to new lows too with politicians and church leaders falling prey to sexual escapades and hypocrisy. The world is imploding, thanks to cartoons………….

    2. Dave's Not Here says:

      Ethic’s is not a word.

      TV’s function is not to teach principles and morals you old bag.

  3. Meh, says:

    If its not a book or playing outside its evil so i take this with a grain of salt

  4. scott says:

    I’d rather have kids watch Sponge Bob than sit through the erectile dysfunction drug commercials that bombard the evening news programs.

    1. em0886-14 says:

      hahaha no kidding!!!

  5. Northfieldgunn says:

    This study has many, many problems. How were the children selected? What previous exposure had the children been subjected to? What timeline did the researches use in determining when to apply the assignment? At what point in the timeline do the results become negligible? Do older children who have been exposed to fast paced media experience the same mental difficulties? Why are these results viewed as negative? Are children watching Sponge Bob in schools? Media caution should always be advised when reporting on preliminary “studies” like this one.

    1. scott says:

      very good point Northfieldgunn
      preliminary studies is usually defined as- we will ask for more money to continue to study this- and it’s usually paid for by the tax payer

    2. Dan says:

      Very good points. It is also important to note that this wasn’t an anti-SpongeBob study, but rather the authors of the study picked SpongeBob as an example of a cartoon with a lot of action to contrast it with “Caillou”. By this criteria, Scooby Doo, Batman, Looney Tunes (Road Runner), Gi-Joe, Transformers, Dora/Diago, and others might well have come up as “bad for your attention span”. (However I still can’t see myself subjecting my kids to Caillou!!!)

      Of course the study also gave kids an IMMEDIATE “test” of their attention span following the show. Is it any wonder that after getting kids wound up, they don’t concentrate very well until they settle down? I’m guessing if they gave the “test” 10 minutes after watching each program, there would be no difference between the two groups of kids. This study seems pretty bogus and not very scientific, and the headline for this article is just sensationalizing skewed results.

      [For a scientific test, repeat this with 10 different shows, a large, diverse population of kids, and give the “attention test” at 5 minute intervals following the show. But this would probably yield no difference and thus put the study out of business]

  6. Dave's Not Here says:

    People have been trying to say “parents are increasingly busy” and “they sit their kids in front of the TV” for the last 30 years.

    Who are these researchers that keep trying to say this?? I can only imagine the millions of dollars given to these researchers, and for what?