Watching fast-paced, fantasy television programs like SpongeBob Squarepants may impede children's learning by compromising their "executive function", or their ability to pay attention, problem-solve and control their behavior, according to new research soon to be published in the October issue of Pediatrics.
Executive function is a concept that psychologists and neuroscientists use to describe a set of brain processes that helps people connect experience to action, and includes skills such as planning, organizing, paying attention, remembering details, and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.
Executive function helps us in many ways in our day to day lives, whether at school, at work, at home or in social settings. For instance it helps us make plans, keep track of activity and finish on time, "multi-task", reflect on what we try to accomplish and evaluate it, correct ourselves as we go along, take part in group and written discussions using past knowledge meaningfully, and modify our behavior according to social norms (for instance wait for our turn, not interrupt, show respect).
In a randomized, controlled study, psychologists from the University of Virginia in the US tested 4-year-olds just after they watched nine minutes of television shows or sat drawing for nine minutes. The children watched two types of show: SpongeBob Squarepants a fast-paced cartoon fantasy show, and Caillou, a slower-paced, more realistic public television educational cartoon about a pre-school boy.
The tests measured their ability to solve problems, follow rules, remember what they had been told, and how well they were able to delay gratification.
Lead investigator Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, wrote the paper with her graduate student Jennifer Peterson. Lillard told the press that:
"There was little difference on the tests between the drawing group and the group that watched Caillou."
She suggests two reasons why a show like SpongeBob Squarepants might interfere with young children's ability to learn and modify their behavior:
"It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child's ability to concentrate immediately afterward," said Lillard.
"Another possibility is that children identify with unfocused and frenetic characters, and then adopt their characteristics," she added.
Although Lillard and Peterson express concern that watching such shows at the age of 4, where young children are at an important developmental stage, may damage lifelong learning and behavior, their study did not look at this, it measured only the immediate effects, and the children did not watch a complete show.
This, and the small sample size of only 60 children are "notable weaknesses" of the study, says Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington in Seattle, in an accompanying editorial. He says the study raises questions, such as whether the effects it found are permanent, and whether the age of the children matters, but does not answer them.
Another point he raises is that the amount of exposure may also be an issue: does watching an incomplete show have an effect? And how might the other programs children watch influence this?
However, Lillard urges parents to bear their findings in mind when they allow their young children to watch television.
"Parents should know that children who have just watched SpongeBob Squarepants, or shows like it, might become compromised in their ability to learn and behave with self-control," said Lillard.
"Young children are beginning to learn how to behave as well as how to learn. At school, they have to behave properly, they need to sit at a table and eat properly, they need to be respectful, and all of that requires executive functions. If a child has just watched a television show that has handicapped these abilities, we cannot expect the child to behave at their normal level in everyday situations," she added.
Lillard suggests parents help their young children to develop sound behaviors and learning skills by encouraging creative activity, such as drawing, playing with building blocks and board games, and playing outdoors.
"Executive function is extremely important to children's success in school and in everyday life. It's important to their psychological and physical well-being," said Lillard.