Thursday, September 15, 2011

In Defense of Sponge Bob

Aye-aye maties! This week, a study came out in the Journal, Pediatrics, which concluded that watching Sponge Bob is associated with worse executive functioning in children. Executive functioning is a broad concept but in this context it refers to the ability to delay gratification. Children who watched Sponge Bob segments as opposed to the lighter paced PBS show, Caillou, were worse at delaying gratification. The theory is that the children were so mentally worn down after watching the quick Sponge Bob animation that they could not delay their gratification as well as the children who watched the slower animation on Caillou. This was based on results of the famous "marshmallow test" in which children were told that when the researchers left the room, they could ring a bell and eat two marshmallows or crackers immediately. But if they waited a few minutes they could have 10 marshmallows or crackers. Children who watched Sponge Bob ate the food right away.

No one knows how long this effect lasts or even if it is a valid reflection of a true association with Sponge Bob (or fast animation). To begin with the sample size for each group was small (20 per group), the children were 4 years old despite the target demographic for Sponge Bob being 6 to 11, and there may be other explanations that have nothing to do with fast animation. For anyone who watches Sponge Bob, it is very food-based. Maybe the children who watched Sponge Bob got hungry watching those delicious Krabby Patties being prepared and just wanted to eat something afterwards.

The ironic thing about this study from my own personal experience is that I know people whose children love Sponge Bob and are great students but whose parents banned Caillou because the character was talking rude to others and this was being imitated by the children. So, there are other factors to consider as opposed to how fast the segments go on a TV show. As someone who grew up watching fast paced shows such as Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, and the Electric Company, somehow I made it out ok and with enough executive functioning to earn a doctoral degree and run a website. So I think that the Sponge Bob Generation will be just fine -- as long as Plankton doesn't get his grubby little hands on that secret Krabby Patty recipe.

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