Give SpongeBob a break!

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

This morning I turned on the news and found this headline: Pediatricians group finds fault with SpongeBob published by Reuters. In the article, the Reuters reporter states:

And Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will take aim at the 12-year-old Nickelodeon show, reporting a study that concludes the fast-paced show, and others like it, arent good for children.

From the title and the content of the news article, you could conclude that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is taking a position against the cartoon. I was initially shocked and wanted to see why the AAP would take such as drastic policy statement. After all, the AAP only takes positions on issues that have been extensively studied, such as their position against corporal punishment.

But I rapidly realized that the AAP was not taking any position against SpongeBob at all, and that the AP article was entirely misleading (most likely because the reporter may not know how the AAP publication process works).

At issue is a small study that will be published this week in the journal Pediatrics, which is the main journal of the AAP. The AAP PR office sent a press release this weekend about the study, just as they do about many of the studies to be published this week. Such a press release is simply an attempt to get publicity for the journal but does not at any level imply that the AAP itself endorses the results of the study as conclusive.

Let me explain, the journal Pediatrics simply publishes the results of carefully conducted studies that are supposed to advance our knowledge of an issue. Then scientists can review the study and try to replicate it or improve it. That is, other scientists try to conduct the same experiment and try to get the same results. In many cases the findings are replicated and we can start to draw some narrow conclusions about the issue, but in many, many cases the findings are not replicated.

I have not read this specific study because it has not been provided to scientists yet (I hate that the AAP provides information of studies to journalists before it gives it to the scientific community). But from another AP report, it seems that the authors compared 4-year-old kids who completed 3 tasks: 1. Watch Spongebob for 9 minutes. 2. watch another slower-paced cartoon, or 3. draw pictures. After this experiment, the kids completed a task of inhibitory control, in which they had to wait before they could eat candy.

The results suggested that those who watched Spongebob were more impulsive (aka ate the candy sooner) than the kids in the other two groups. I may make additional comments about this study once I read it, but this is not entirely surprising given that SpongeBob is fast-paced and would increase physiological arousal, which in turn will decrease inhibitory control. I am surprised that the comparison group was not an active one, such as having the kids run around or make jumping jacks. In such a case, I would predict that the kids doing exercise would also have difficulty waiting for the candy and would perform similarly to the kids watching SpongeBob. Would you then conclude that exercise is bad for kids?

Despite the medias sensationalistic statements, it seems that the conclusions by the authors were pretty appropriate. They stated to the AP that the study suggests that parents should not have young kids watch SpongeBob or any other fast-paced TV show immediately before they need to do activities that require concentration, such as going to preschool or kindergarten. This makes sense, just as it makes sense that kids should not be running around before going to bed.

So the issue is not really about SpongeBob, but about the simple phenomenon that  excitement can reduce inhibitory control.

I say, give SpongeBob a break.

Cheers, Nestor.