It’s not unusual to hear about parents who never let their kids watch SpongeBob SquarePants when they were younger, in many cases due to the commonly held belief that watching SpongeBob can lower your IQ, or be detrimental to the brains of young children in other ways. But how much of that is actually true?
A study conducted by the University of Virginia took 60 4-year-olds and split them into 3 groups of 20. Each group was assigned a different task for 9 minutes. The first group watched a 9-minute clip of SpongeBob, the second, a clip of the same length from the children’s show Caillou, and the third simply had 9 minutes to doodle with crayons and markers. The contrast between the TV shows in the study involved great differences in pace and action, with changes of the camera and/or scene approximately every 11 seconds in SpongeBob, and every 34 seconds in Caillou. After the 9 minutes were up, the 4-year-olds were given tasks that involved learning, such as doing the opposite action of what they’re told to do (for example, touching their head when told to touch their toes), as well as being tested on the ability to recite a string of digits in reverse. The results of the tests showed that children in both of the other categories performed better in every category than the children who watched SpongeBob.
But this doesn’t mean what many people assume it to mean. While the first assumption of many is to conclude that watching SpongeBob simply makes kids “dumber”, it’s important to note that that’s not what the study measured. The study measured the show’s effect on attention span, and the results show that SpongeBob is taxing on the minds of children, which fatigues their brains and causes problems focusing on other tasks. In fact, representative of Nickelodeon, David Bittler told ABC news that he thought the methodology of the study was questionable, stating that the subjects of the study were not an accurate representation of the intended audience for SpongeBob, and were in fact two years younger than the specified target demographic. Another problem with this particular study was explained by Jane Gould, former Senior Vice President of Consumer Insights at Nickelodeon, in a video interview (2:43 in the video on ABC News), stating that SpongeBob is designed to entertain, rather than educate, where as the other show used to compare in the study, Caillou, is both designed for that purpose, and for the age demographic used in the study. Additionally, Bittler accused the study of not using enough diversity in the studies, and both Bittler and Gould said that not enough subjects were used.
So does SpongeBob have an effect on young viewers’ brains? Yes. Does it make young viewers “dumber”? Well, not exactly. Or at least, it has yet to be proven to. The fast paced clips and action in SpongeBob stimulate the children, with the aim to entertain them. While it doesn’t educate kids, it’s important to understand that that’s not it’s aim. The fatigue to the minds of kids is not dangerous on it’s own. While attention spans are shown to be shorter after watching SpongeBob, it can be explained without suggesting any detrimental long term effects.
ABC News interview