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SpongeBob SquarePants… Harmful?

By: Ebey P. Soman

Current research demonstrates a strong correlation between the length of time a child watches television and decreased long-term attention deficiency disorders. A new study by Lillard and Peterson at the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia suggests that the popular children‘s television show, SpongeBob SquarePants, might be harmful.

The goal of this study was to see if a fast-paced TV show could influence young children‘s (preschool age) short-term executive function. Executive function defines a set of mental processes that help people perform activities, have normal social inhibitions, the ability to pay attention, to recall memories accurately, to manage their time, and to complete tasks given to them successfully. Since executive function encompasses so many mental processes, it is often used as a marker for children‘s cognitive and social functions, as well as a predictor of how well they will succeed in school.

The children in the study were mostly Caucasians from middle to upper middle class socioeconomic backgrounds. A total of 60 four-year-old children were randomly assigned to watch the TV show, draw, or watch an educational cartoon (on PBS) for 9 minutes. Then, the children were given tasks that utilize their memory recall and other executive functions. These tasks were the Tower of Hanoi task, the Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) task, delay-of-gratification task, and the backward digit span subtest of the working memory capacity test. These tested how well the children followed instructions to complete tasks, cognitive recall of a specific task, the ability to wait patiently to complete a task to be rewarded, and memory recall task, respectively.

The results were quite interesting. The children who watched the TV show performed significantly worse in the tasks they were assigned, while the children in the other groups who drew or watched an educational cartoon performed better. One of the limitations of the study was that they could not identify the exact factor that caused the decrease in executive function. Also, only a 9-minute clip of the television show was used. Generally, TV shows are longer, which may imply more detrimental effects on children.

The study concluded that children who watch fast-paced TV shows, like SpongeBob SquarePants, could have impaired executive functions compared to other children their age who may engage in other activities. All the children in the study had relatively similar executive functions during the start of the study, but the experimental group exhibited decreased function. The study maintains that this impairment may be temporary; however, more studies may be needed to evaluate the extent of the impact.


  • Lillard AS, Peterson J. The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function. Pediatrics. 2011 Oct;128(4):644-9.
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