Which cartoon is best for your kid?

Researchers from the University of Virginia demonstrated in a startling study that watching fast-paced TV shows, like SpongeBob SquarePants, can weaken a host of abilities, such as attention span, self-control, and problem-solving among children. These functions and others are all lumped under the umbrella term “executive function”.

In the study, four-year-olds who watched the fast-paced entertainment cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants for nine minutes were compared to children who watched a slow-paced educational cartoon and to children who drew a picture. Immediately afterwards, the children’s executive functioning was measured by their ability to perform several tasks. Researchers discovered that viewers of the fast-paced entertainment cartoon were less able to do the things that non-viewers were able to do, like curb the desire to eat a tasty snack when instructed not to, or pay attention to and follow an instruction given by an adult.

One possible explanation given by the researchers is that, similarly to how a computer’s processor works, a fast-paced show takes up more of the brain’s capacity, leaving less room for other processes.

It’s not just SpongeBob parents need to be wary of. Similar shows could have similar effects. What aspects of SpongeBob prompt such tendencies? It could be the overwhelming amount of fiction, the fast pace, or this particular cartoon’s unpredictable nature.

Better executive function has been associated with higher grades at school, and although no severe or long-lasting consequences are documented in this study, it is possible that longer exposure to shows like SpongeBob could have more serious side effects. The side effects on children older or younger than four years are also unknown.

While researchers follow up on these questions, you need to blow the dust off those BBC documentaries. Your child’s cognitive capabilities may depend on it.