Monday, September 12, 2011

Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the Sea?

If you know the answer to that question, welcome to my world.  I was planning to blog about something "serious" today, but an article in my morning paper caught my eye: "SpongeBob in hot water from study of 4-year-olds."  A randomized, controlled trial on SpongeBob SquarePants?  How could I resist?  I found the study easily.  It was a free "early online release" from the venerable Pediatrics journal.  ("The immediate impact of different types of television on young children's executive function.")  Early release articles are typically trials that post such impressive results that they have to be published online immediately, to save as many lives as possible.  I guess the editors of Pediatrics felt that they had to put a grinding halt to the zombification of American 4-year-olds.

The researchers randomized sixty 4-year-olds to 9 minutes of SpongeBob, Caillou (the most boring educational cartoon ever produced; the only reason to watch is to learn how to pronounce "Caillou") or drawing.  They then had them take four different tests of "executive function," a fancy term for "more complicated decision-making."  One of these tests, for example, was the classic delay-of-gratification task, in which the child is told he could either have 2 marshmallows immediately, or 10 marshmallows in about 5 minutes.  The child is timed, and the longer he can hold off, the better he is at delaying gratification.  

SpongeBob was classified as being fast-paced, compared to the pokey pace of Caillou:  the scenes in SpongeBob shift every 11 seconds, compared to every 34 seconds in Caillou. The investigators hypothesized that watching a fast-paced cartoon would negatively affect the subjects' attention spans, and thus their executive functions, and they were right.  Here are how the three groups performed on their tests:*
Predictably, a spokesman from Nickolodeon skewered the study, saying "Having 60 non-diverse 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust."  Hey, Nickolodeon, I'm sure you can always find some helpful legal advice from the folks at Phillip Morris!  Actually, I do think he has a point.  The study was small and only partially blinded, and the results may not pertain to older kids.  None of the subjects were tested before the videos to see what their baseline attention spans were.  Finally, the tests were performed immediately after the videos were shown, so even if the results are true, who knows if the negative effects are long-lasting?

The lead author did make a point which gave me pause: "I wouldn't advise watching such shows on the way to school or any time they're expected to pay attention or learn."  My kids watch not 9, but 30 minutes of SpongeBob every weekday -- before they leave for school.  Maybe I'll do their teachers a favor and detox them on Caillou

*HTKS, by the way, refers to "Head Toes Knees Shoulders."  I thought at first that they were making the kids run through the popular "Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes" song, but no.  Instead, kids were asked to touch their head when the instructor told them to touch their toes, and vice-versa, with increasingly confusing variations.  I'm pretty sure my scores would have been unplottably low, SpongeBob exposure or not.


  1. Caillou is actually one of my kids favorite shows : ) I think it has a good message and experiences kids can relate to. (BTW- my kids are not allowed to watch Spongebob.)

  2. just heard this on the radio the other day too... it would explain birth order traits too - with the 3rd child being the one less focused because (s)he spends the most time in front of the television rather than doing something educational.

  3. LOL. Steph - you are such an animated writer. I can totally hear your voice as I am reading this blog. OMG, no wonder my attention span is so short. Guess watching too much Spongebob in college may have impacted my brain function. I can even sing the theme song. "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Spongbob square pant. Spongbob square pant. Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. Spongebob square pant...."

  4. Great blog, Stephanie, and nice to see that you've got readers. I hesitate to ask, but what is the Tower of Hanoi? It sounds like a test to see if you can attend to torturing your younger siblings (or parents, maybe).

  5. Good question, Gary. The Tower of Hanoi is that classic puzzle in which you try to move a stack of graduated disks from 1 peg to another, one at a time, without ever putting a large disk on top of a smaller one. I'm not explaining it very well, but you can view an example on And yes, it is form of mental torture! (I can't believe they made 4-year-olds do it.)