SpongeBob, Caillou, and a Box of Crayons

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I could have lived a happy life without knowing the influence that SpongeBob and Patrick have on 2- to 11- year olds.  Hot off the press, Angeline S. Lillard, PhD and her colleagues from the University of Virginia reported a study designed to assess the impact of a fast-paced TV program on the executive function of preschoolers.  Executive function is a fancy term used to describe how the brain chooses to do something, and it involves things like attention, memory, and self-control.  Kids with a lot of executive function do well in school and probably in life, too.

The researchers chose SpongeBob (where the complete scene changes an average of every 34 seconds) and Caillou, a slower paced PBS educational program with a control group of children skipping TV altogether in favor of crayons. The researchers were interested in how the preschoolers behaved, solved problems and could wait for a treat immediately following the activity.

 The study is well written and easy to read (if you can skip the executive function lingo and the P= .05 statistics).  As you might expect, kids who watch nine minutes of SpongeBob behave an awful lot like he does immediately following the show. They have a tougher time solving problems, remembering things, and they can’t wait for the marshmallow treat.  Remember the Marshmallow Test ?

Ask any parent.  We know there’s a whole lot more jumping on the couch after an episode of SpongeBob and a whole lot more sword fighting after the Power Rangers and well…we probably shouldn’t discuss what happens after Mythbusters.  I won’t summarize all the results of the research, but I would encourage you to read it for yourself.

I am actually grateful for this study.  Often, it takes an ah-hah moment like reading the results to acknowledge what we know down deep.  Not all TV affects children in a positive way.  That ah-ha moment forces me to acknowledge that the TV can be my video babysitter, and I have to use it carefully.  If one episode offers thirty uninterrupted minutes to unload the dishwasher, get dinner on the table, and essentially focus on any task I need to accomplish without multitasking, it may come at a price I don’t really want to pay.

The realization that some programming is better for kids than others is not new.  If you have not watched Saturday morning cartoons with your child recently…or any TV for that matter, I’m handing you a prescription to do so.  It doesn’t take a PhD and this UVA study to listen to your “Mom-heart” and help your child choose good shows to watch.  Without help, there are an unlimited number of choices, and like cheese doodles and soda, kids do not always make the best choices.

In  Editorial Commentary ,  Dimitri A. Christakis reminds us, “Eliminating media is neither feasible nor desirable; even reducing media is challenging and misses the point…”  The point might be to insist that parents watch TV with our children more often than we do.  It’s easy to say no to the SpongeBob Marathon Saturday if you have to watch, too!

One of my ‘go to’ resources for help in choosing wisely with my family is  CommonSenseMedia.org.   They rate every media format (from books to TV, movies and video games).  And they help me decide what’s fit for my children’s consumption.  They have taken on an advocacy role for children’s media issues and are front runners in topics like internet privacy and advertising to children.  Believe it or not, my teens introduced me to the website!

Last thought… Remember, the control group of kids had crayons.  I wonder if the iPad drawing app works the same as the real thing…

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