There's been a lot of attention to a study from the University of VA. After 9 minutes of watching SpongeBob, 4-year old children's ability immediately afterwards to "pay attention, solve problems and moderate behavior" was significantly impaired compared to children who had watched a slower paced show or who had been drawing.
Is SpongeBob bad for your child? The lead author of the study, Dr. Angeline Lillard, said that SpongeBob shouldn't be singled out– there were similar findings with other fast-paced shows. She also pointed out that the study showed young children are compromised immediately after watching the show. It's not a good idea for children to watch stimulating cartoons if they need to exercise self-control and focus immediately afterwards. It's also a bad idea to watch stimulating TV before bed.
In this particular study, the size of the group was small, and the children were tested immediately after the activity with measures that called for attention and self-control. Maybe they would have been more creative, or been able to do better on a test of making up stories. Who knows? There still is no question that the study supports many others concluding that electronic media are having a significant impact on kids.
I completely agree that the media – social media and all the other screens our children watch – are having an impact on our kids. We shouldn't only look at cartoons. What about video games and video baby toys, and later on texting, Internet surfing, etc.? I've seen 4 year olds playing on iPhones.
I also agree that fast paced programming can influence attention and self control. But I suggest it's not only the quality of the program, but also what parents do with it. Is TV being used as a babysitter? Are video games being used to fill time instead of having parent-child interaction? Parents can use media to engage with their children and talk over what they've seen or to practice what they've learned, whether it's learning the names of animals, watching cartoons or creating graphics. If the parent uses the media experience to interact with the child, that interaction itself has the potential to reinforce attention, teach understanding and encourage relatedness.
As much as I criticize media and the impact it has on relationships, I like SpongeBob. Working with elementary school children, I use SpongeBob to teach social interactions and big picture thinking. Ask even a young child if Squidward likes SpongeBob, and he knows the answer is "No." So I ask, "Why doesn't SpongeBob get it? Why does he keep trying to play with Squidward?" Good question, and one that relates to many kids who keep seeking out the wrong kids at the playground. There's another episode where SpongeBob eats a smelly concoction, and then doesn't understand why everyone avoids him. He takes it to mean that people don't like him. He missed the bigger picture and made the wrong conclusion. That's an idea worth discussing.
There is no question that media in general is a public health issue, says Dr. Demitri Christakis, a child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital. He suggests that fast paced programming may not be appropriate for small children. The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to Dr. Alanna Levine, is that children under two not watch television at all, and for children older than two, you want to limit the combined media use, including computers and video games, to two hours a day. She also says it's important to pay attention to the quality of the programming children are watching, not just the quantity.
The impact of media on children has implications that go well beyond the immediate impact on attention and control. There are pros and cons to the impact of media on relationships and communication, which I discussed in an earlier column. See http://bit.ly/ckZ4Di. Are media taking the place of creative play and learning to enjoy reading, of talking to friends in person outside school?
We can't get rid of media, so we need to learn how to use it to engage our children and help them grow. We need to learn how to maximize the benefits and deal with the negative effects by limiting time, providing supervision and teaching responsible media use. Parents need to be sure that we are not allowing children to become isolated in an electronic world.