Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is SpongeBob a Bad Influence?

He's just a made-up cartoon character, a squarish-sponge in shorts who lives under the sea, flips burgers for a living and interacts with a squirrel in an astronaut-like helmet. But boy, has SpongeBob been making a splash!

Yesterday, the esteemed medical journal Pediatrics released a study that showed that preschoolers have decreased brain power after watching just nine minutes of SpongeBob. According to the study (which I covered for iVillage), the fast-pace of SpongeBob, combined with the fantastical setting and plot, might tax preschoolers' brains to the point that they have little left after the show for problem solving and delaying gratification.

So does that mean your sons should never watch SpongeBob?

I don't think so.

Like him or not, SpongeBob is a major cultural touchstone for young kids. If you choose not to expose your kids to SpongeBob and his ilk, I completely respect your decision. But I also think there's something to be said for letting your kids know what the hoopla is all about.

While the Pediatrics study is being played for headlines (and yes, I'm guilty of it too), it also contained some great, commonsense takeaway messages. Among them:
  • TV shows -- even TV shows for kids -- vary greatly. TV isn't inherently good or bad. A vast gulf exists between, say, Spongebob and Sid the Science Kid. Both are animated. Both are aimed at kids. But even the creators of shows will tell you that the shows have very different purposes. SpongeBob was designed to entertain older kids. Sid the Science Kids is designed to encourage preschooler's scientific curiosity.
  • Different TV shows have different effects on kids' behavior. The Pediatrics study compared the thinking and behavior of kids who watched SpongeBob with that of kids who watched a "realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US preschool-aged boy" and kids who spent the same time period drawing. The kids who watched SpongeBob performed the worst on tests designed to measure kids' "executive function" (higher level cognitive tasks). The takeway for parents, at least as far as I'm concerned: Be mindful of the effects of TV on your kids. If you find your sons' behavior deteriorating after certain TV shows, sit down and watch the show with your kids. Is it really appropriate for your kids? Maybe it's time to tweak their TV viewing habits a bit.
  • Select shows with your kids' age and interests in mind. Nickelodeon, home of SpongeBob, came out forcefully against the study, arguing the SpongeBob wasn't designed for preschoolers in the first place. They're right. But let's face it: if you have older kids in the house, your younger ones will likely be exposed to shows aimed at an older audience. I don't fret if my younger kids spend some time watching SpongeBob or iCarly with their older brothers, but I do attempt to offset that time by making sure they get time to watch age-appropriate shows like Martha Speaks and Wild Kratts.

Some other thoughts re kids and TV:

  • Provide balance. Yes, my kids watch SpongeBob. They also watch American Pickers and Ice Road Truckers and historical and nature documentaries.
  • Be open to life lessons in surprising places. Fellow writer and parent Geoff Williams penned a great business article a few years ago entitled "5 Things SpongeBob Squarepants Can Teach You About Business." You -- and authors of the Pediatrics study -- might not think of SpongeBob as a business expert, but if you look closely, you can gleam some actual business wisdom from the show. You and your kids can even learn some life lessons from SpongeBob and his crew.
  • Talk about it! Kids need adults to help put things in context. But please don't lecture your children. Listen first. Talk to them about their favorite TV shows. Ask them what they like about the show. (It might not be what you think.) Watch with them. Then, ever so naturally, talk about the show. If something bugs you, say so -- and why. If a character does something you like, say so and why. Engage your kids in the conversation.

What do you think of SpongeBob and the Pediatrics study? Do you have any other useful tips re kids and TV?


  1. you always have great info annd make such good points!!

  2. Thank you! I read about the study from a mom who was patting herself on the back for watching Caillou and not Sponge Bob. Le sigh. Cool when you have three year old, but like you said, it doesn't always work out like that.

    My seven year old loves Sponge Bob and it's actually one of the few cartoons (that and Avatar and Phinneas and Ferb) that my husband and I enjoy watching with him.

    TV (or one show) is not inherently evil, but like anything in life it helps to be mindful.

  3. We love Spongebob now. When it first came out, I thought the name sounded dumb and I wasn't going to let my young son watch it. Somehow I ended up catching an episode and laughing. Now I watch with my three kids whenever I get a chance. I love Patrick. Spongebob, I believe, is a lesson in humility. He always tries to do the right thing once he figures out what that is.