There was a study several years ago that made the rounds when my oldest was in prime Nick Jr.-watching age; it was the basis for the AAP recommendation that kids two and under watch no TV, or, failing that, very very little. The study basically found that all TV was bad for little kids' brains, and it didn't matter what it was; Sesame Street, SpongeBob, and Law & Order were all equally brain-rotting, in this study's opinion. This was the inspiration for lots of mama guilt (both personal and universal), and some grumbling about the poor study design; it was, for instance, based entirely on parental report of both quantity and content of TV, as well as the children's resultant behavior and school performance. Were the kids with difficult behavior and poor school performance really watching PBS for two hours a day -- or WWE for six hours a day? And were the guilt-ridden mamas whose kids watched PBS over-reporting the behavior out of some kind of morose ethical code? Causation, too, was an issue; maybe the kids with poor school performance all lived closer to high-traffic streets, or were all suffering from imperfect nutrition. The study, while striking, was hardly clear evidence.
Enter better (if not exactly clear) evidence. A new study from the University of Virginia [pdf link] published in the September 12 issue of the Pediatrics journal showed that it does make a difference what the young children watch, and specifically, preschool-aged children were shown episodes of Caillou (the almost moronically peaceful, sweet show about a little boy shown on PBS) and SpongeBob SquarePants (I think you know). The control group drew pictures independently. There was only nine minutes of the TV, but the fast-paced SpongeBob immediately impacted childrens' "executive function" -- self-regulation and working memory.
The problem wasn't the slapstick content and the ridiculous jokes (honestly, I've grown to appreciate SpongeBob's unusual humor). It was the part that makes me crazy when I'm listening from the other room -- the frequent changes in scene, about every 11 seconds, compared to 34 seconds for Caillou. Researchers theorized that this fast pace impaired children's brain function. It's worth noting that defenders have sprung up to compare this study to one 1970s comparison of fast- and slow-paced episodes of Sesame Street (the control group was read to by parents), which held that pace had no impact on children's attention spans. "...there’s no telling which characteristics of the programs might have affected the children’s thinking," wrote editors on a Bloomberg editorial. "Could it be that the children were slow to settle down and get to work because SpongeBob is funny and they were energized by laughter? As much as we respect all forms of expression, it’s safe to say that Caillou is not particularly funny, and it’s easy to see how kids could turn from watching it to performing serious tasks without needing a moment to recover." And another critical article noted that the survey was statistically flawed; "Compared to drawing, kids in the SpongeBob group did worse when the researchers measured these executive function areas — attention, working memory, and problem solving. But compared to the kids who watched the other cartoon, there was no statistical difference between the two groups of kids. When a researcher says something 'approached significance,' that’s a squishy research term to say, 'Well, it's not significant, but it's darned close.'"
Given the usual skepticism about making generalizations about small groups of children watching two very different programs, this is still something I've long been concerned about, though not with such clarity. My kids had some unexpected response to a zoomy, fast-paced movie made for 3D when we saw it in the theatre (How to Train Your Dragon). I was boggled by how often the scene changed; sometimes the pace was so fast I found myself ducking, or squeezing my eyes shut. It overwhelmed me. On the way home, we endured some of the worst meltdowns I'd seen from my kids -- simultaneously, at least -- in months.
I'm not banning SpongeBob, but it's useful to observe the reactions of my kids to various intensities of TV. Johnny Test, for instance, is hilarious -- but the sound of it destroys my own brain function. If it's on, there's no way I can write anything intelligent. Same goes for lots of Cartoon Network shows (and, let's be honest, Sid the Science Kid, which I've never cared for). I'll keep this sort of content to a minimum for my kids; it's not going to rot their brains permanently, probably, but it's certainly not going to give their brains a rich and nurturing environment for creating positive change in the world.