A new study, published by the journal Pediatrics today found that watching “fast-paced, fantastical” cartoon programming can be a detriment to the attention spans of 4-year-old children, however watching more realistic cartoons does not, MSNBC is reporting.
At 4 months of age, US children are already acclimated to regular viewing of daily television, and they watch lots of it, Dr. Dimitri Christakis writes in a commentary accompanying the study.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 years of age watch no television at all, the group says a limited amount is acceptable for older children as long as it´s no more than one to two hours a day of educational programs.
“It confirms something that parents have observed for some time,” Christakis says of the study. “They put their kids in front of television, particularly fast-paced programming, to quiet them down, but when the TV goes off, the kids are more amped up than they were before.”
Psychologists from the University of Virginia tested 4-year-old children immediately after they had watched nine minutes of the popular show “SpongeBob SquarePants”.
The study found that their ability to pay attention, solve problems and moderate behavior had been severely compromised compared to 4-year-olds who had either watched the slower-paced “Caillou,” a slower-paced, realistic public television show for nine minutes, or had spent nine minutes drawing.
“There was little difference on the tests between the drawing group and the group that watched ℠Caillou,´” said lead investigator Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor in U.Va.´s College of Arts & Sciences.
Lillard and her co-author, Jennifer Peterson, explain that 4-year-olds are in an important development stage of their lives and that what they watch on television may have lasting effects on their lifelong learning and behaviors. Their study, however, focused on the immediate effects.
“Young children are beginning to learn how to behave as well as how to learn,” Lillard said. “At school, they have to behave properly, they need to sit at a table and eat properly, they need to be respectful, and all of that requires executive functions. If a child has just watched a television show that has handicapped these abilities, we cannot expect the child to behave at their normal level in everyday situations.”
She emphasizes that parents should come up with creative learning activities, such as drawing, using building blocks and board games, and playing outdoors to help their children develop healthy social behaviors and learning skills.
“Executive function is extremely important to children´s success in school and in everyday life,” Lillard said. “It´s important to their psychological and physical well-being.”
Don´t blame Mr. SquarePants for messing with preschoolers´ brains, Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler told MSNBC. “SpongeBob is produced for 6- to 11-year-olds. Four-year-olds are clearly not the intended demographic for this show.”
SpongeBob is not listed among the shows for preschoolers on nickjr.com, of which, the best-known of those is “Dora the Explorer,” Bittler says. Many adults complain, however, that Dora is too slow, MSNBC reports.
SpongeBob might not have the same negative effect on attention in older children, the authors acknowledge. They don´t know how long the negative effects last or what the long-term effects of regularly viewing SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and the gang might be.
“Maybe the next step is really to try and figure out how long-lasting these effects are,” says Georgetown University psychologist Rachel Barr told MSNBC.
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