A study by a graduate student and a psychology professor at the University of Virginia examined cognitive function in four-year-olds after they had watched nine minutes of “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea,” i.e., SpongeBob SquarePants. They then compared these findings to those derived from examining the cognitive function of four-year-olds after watching nine minutes of a slower paced cartoon.
The results? After viewing the show about the absorbent and yellow and porous creature, children performed worse on various tests. The conclusions proved consistent with the authors’ postulate that “fast-paced shows seem particularly likely to have a negative impact on attention.”
The study characterizes the show that they compare favorably with SpongeBob SquarePants as “a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US preschool-aged boy.” Their bizarre description tells us more about the authors than it does about Caillou, a moralistic Canadian show about a whiny, bald, infantilized four-year-old whose main interaction with the world comes through condescending grandparents and slo-mo parents who have mistaken Prozac for one of the four foods groups. A few viewings of Caillou may prompt otherwise normal adults to ponder the wisdom of repealing laws against child battery, at least as they pertain to animated minors.
Though lacking an advanced degree, I have been conducting my own scientific experiment on the effects of television on children for several years now. My sample group of two is smaller than the University of Virginia’s sample group of sixty. But I have observed my lab rats longer and more intensely. In the name of science, I even allow them to live with me and share my last name.
My conclusions, reached long before the researchers began their study at the University of Virginia, are that Caillou should never air in my home — it’s banned — but SpongeBob SquarePants is not only permitted but practically obligatory. It is the lone cartoon that I watch with my kids, eh, test subjects. Children may not learn much from television. But, as human Xerox machines, they do imitate it. If you want a baby-talking brat who complains about his bread still having the crusts, allow your child to watch Caillou. If you want a congenitally happy four-year-old, turn on SpongeBob SquarePants.
My older child speaks the raspberry interspersed diction popular in Rock Bottom. He announces “Living like Larry” prior to embarking upon daring couch stunts. And he periodically refers to diverse edibles as “crabby patties.” If all of this misses you, then you’re missing out. The adventures of happy-go-lucky SpongeBob, professional mope Squidward, the avaricious Mr. Crabs, and the other colorful denizens of Bikini Bottom remains the top-rated children’s show more than a decade after its launch for good reason. And for good reason Caillou has been mercifully cancelled.
I don’t question the Pediatrics study’s conclusion. I question their question. A scientific study asking which cartoons are best for your brain is like a debate about which grape soda is healthiest for your body. If you turn on an animated program with the idea of producing a child as smart as Sandy, then you may be surprised to soon encounter the mind of Patrick. Cartoons are entertainment. SpongeBob makes no pretense about this. Could it be that children’s shows that tout educational benefits do so because they fail as entertainment?
A television isn’t a classroom and a classroom isn’t a television. The related movements to make education more entertaining and entertainment more educational dilute the strengths of both.
My scientific experiment found that the television makes a good reward or punishment but a bad babysitter. Prolonged exposure inhibits focus and engenders misbehavior. The Pediatrics article suggests switching from SpongeBob to Caillou but it doesn’t consider the possibility of switching off entirely, which is what my family did from February to August and before that from 2006 to 2008. Children become more animated without all the animation. Parents parent instead of outsource their responsibilities to Nickelodeon, PBS, or more unfit guardians. When televisions go dark families light up.
But some still look for intelligence from the idiot box. An editorial introducing the Pediatrics study touts the “educational benefits of high-quality preschool programming.” Even someone who lives in a pineapple under the sea wouldn’t fall for such nonsense.