A new study, along with an incredible editorial, was published today in Pediatrics about the effects of watching fast-paced cartoons on the attention and working memory of 4 year-olds. It’s basically a Spongebob versus Crayola versus Caillou show-down. At least it feels that way in the media summaries today. And thus, it’s bound to hit the front pages of every parent’s windshield. First and foremost, it’s a genius study for getting the word out and attracting media attention–media love to talk about media. Especially when it comes to the effects on children; all forms of media are looking for a viable option for longevity. There is just so much competition now.

Also, the study is interesting. Plain and simple, I couldn’t wait to read it. We watch Caillou around here and my husband and I like to dissect and ridicule it (in private)–everything from the outfits to the color scheme to the lessons. As a parent, it’s kind of painful to watch–its just so utterly wholesome and slow. On the flip side because of this goodness in the the content and pace, we feel less “guilty” letting the boys watch it. The result has been a win-win: the boys looooooove it–I mean, love it–and we pat ourselves on the back for the choice. Good media is far better than bad media, we think. Fortunately, the data backs up our instinct. And this helps with our mommy-daddy-guilt. We’re a really low media viewing house, but not the lowest. We have friends whose children don’t see a screen for months at a time.

The findings are not at all surprising. If you sat down a group of parents in a room and asked which they thought was better for their child’s memory, attention, and performance on tasks: A) coloring B) watching Caillou or C) watching Spongebob, I suspect they would all come up with the results in the study. However, the beauty of the research is that it puts us one step closer in understanding why fast-paced shows may render our children less attentive, less focused, and impatient in the real world.

The study provides data, confirms instinct, and fuels efforts for me at home and in clinic. It serves up ammo for my, “Think about WHAT your kids are watching in addition to how much they are watching” advice for parents. I think you’ll find the study design fascinating, too. The details matter here. Because the results aren’t surprising (watching fast-paced cartoons hindered attention, focus, and memory), it’s more helpful to look at the methods and data and see what it means for you and your family individually.

The Study:

  • Researches in Virginia took a group of 60, 4 year-olds and randomly assigned them to 1 of 3 groups. Children were then put in a room alone and asked to draw with crayons, watch Caillou (a PBS show), or watch Spongebob  (a Nickelodeon show) for 9 minutes on a computer. <—–For fun, click on the two separate links I just provided. The user-experience for Calliou versus Spongebob online couldn’t be more different.
  • Immediately after the 9 minute intervention, children completed a battery of tests that required focus, concentration, patience, a working memory, and manipulation. Researchers were hoping to capture a child’s “executive function.” Essentially, children were asked to rearrange blocks with certain rules, they were asked to follow complicated commands like “When I say touch your head, I want you to touch you toes, but when I say touch your toes, I want you to touch your head,” and the marshmallow test, a delay-of-gratification task. The marshmallow test is the most intoxicating to think about. Basically, the children were left in a room with a bowl of marshmallows or Goldfish crackers to decide which they liked. Then on one plate, 10 marshmallows, on the other plate are only 2. Children are told that if they wait until the experimenter returns, they got to eat all 10. If they rang a bell early, the experimenter will come back into the room right away but they will only get to eat the plate with 2. In the past, the marshmallow test has been used to predict school performance and has even been found to predict performance on the SAT some 18 years later. Watch an example of the marshmallow test. It’s a delightful test to observe.

The Results:

  • Groups didn’t differ in attention skills/problems at outset based on parent reports prior to the study. Because kids were randomly assigned to each group, the groups were thought to be very alike.
  • Children who watched the fast-paced TV did significantly worse on the attention and memory testing. There was no difference in performance between the educational TV (Caillou) group versus the drawing group.
  • Delay of gratification (the marshmallow test) was analyzed separately and measured in the number of seconds waited before eating the marshmallow. The children who watched Spongebob did significantly worse than both the drawing and Caillou-watching group. Again the Caillou group performed equally to the drawing group.
  • Researches don’t know exactly why the Spongebob watchers did so poorly. They theorize it has to do with rapid-fire motion, the only seconds-long scenes, and the fact that kids don’t have to really engage in the content. Although somewhat controversial, there have been many studies finding that fast-paced media at a young age may lead to inattention later in life. So working off of that, researchers theorize that Spongebob is super-fast moving and unlike any cogent interaction or experience in the real world. In the editorial, Dr Christakis says, “The ‘overstimulation hypothesis’ is based on the theory that the surreal pacing and sequencing of some shows might tax the brain or parts of it, leading to short-tern (or long-term) deficits….[but] it remains controversial”

The limitations?

  • It’s a very small study. Only 60 children participated. Further, the kids were all white and from upper-middle and middle class families. Although this may project well on decisions in my home, it may not for my friends with different backgrounds or many of my patients. Further, the group of kids in the study had parents who had time to do this–which already puts them in a curious group!
  • The children watched for only 9 minutes of the show. We don’t know what happens to their working memory, concentration level, and attention if they watch the whole 30-minute show or hours of similar shows. Further, the testing was done immediately after watching and so we don’t know what happens to their brain as time unfolds. Is the effect transient?
  • Nickelodeon states that Spongebob isn’t designed for 4 year-olds even though we know young children (even younger than 4) tend to love it! Further research on older children may help us understand if the disruption in executive function happens in a critical time of development (under at 6, for example) or if fast-paced cartoon viewing is detrimental to school performance, memory and attention all the way through childhood.

Mama Doc’s To Do: Cartoons On The Brain

This really isn’t about one show over another. This isn’t about trashing one cartoon network, either. It’s about harnessing information that helps us make media-savvy decisions for our children and helps us raise media-savvy adults who know how to thrive on and offline. We weren’t reared on Spongebob and iPads, smartphones and Nintendo DS, or DVDs and the Wii. Yes, we had television but we consumed about 1/2 the hours children today consume. So our job today is to guide our children into a place of balance with media. Media (in its beauty and its beast) is here to stay. In many regards, children will need to function at a fast-paced, digital-literate pace to be successful as they grow up and transition to adults. So what we model, what we chose to expose our children to, and how much we let them sit in front of screens is relevant. Learning to find balance and compartmentalize our media is key. This isn’t a keep-away from technology blog post.

But,

We want our children to have intimate, authentic, personal friendships. We want them to know how to learn online but also offline, in the silences of the woods and a silent well-run classroom. We want them to look their friends and partners in the eyes. We want them to experience the beautiful part of an uninterrupted conversation.

My advice?

  • If it were my child, I’d observe how your children behave, listen, function, and learn after watching television.
  • With the data from this study, I wouldn’t let them watch fast-paced cartoons just before school or just before sitting down to dinner with your family or just before bed.
  • I’d rip out excess TVs in your home. I’d never put one in a child’s bedroom. I’d limit screen time to less than 2 hours every day.
  • I’d choose naturally paced shows for preschoolers like Sesame Street or a favorite in our home– Driver Dan.

You know all this already. If your kids have watched 230 hours of Spongebob? They’ll be fine. Your child won’t grow up to be an unemployed, inattentive, inconsiderate human by watching one particular cartoon. However, I believe they may be a more balanced, a more focused, and a better student and friend if you limit their exposure to this fast-paced media from here forward.

What’s your thought? You like Spongebob? Do you notice your children’s behavior change after cartoon time of any kind? You tell me.