Cartoons Can Be Mind-Boggling

Children who watched the fast-paced cartoons did significantly worse.

Posted Sep 13, 2011

On September 12, 2011, the respected medical journal Pediatrics published a fascinating study called "The Effects of Fast-Paced Cartoons." The study examines the effects of watching fast-paced cartoons on the attention span and memory of 4 year-olds. The study is personally important to me because it confirms once again what I have been telling parents of young children for two decades: "Be mindful of the quality of the television programs that your child watches. Limit TV to a maximum of one hour of PBS daily. Only allow your children to watch shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and keep them away from cartoons on commercial channels."

In the study, researchers divided 60 four-year-olds into three groups. Each group was put into a room and directed to do one  of the following activities: draw with crayons, watch a PBS show called Caillou, or watch a fast-paced commercial TV show called Spongebob. After 9 minutes, the children took a battery of tests that required focus, concentration, patience, working memory, and manipulation. Researchers were hoping to capture the "executive function" of a child's brain.

The results were remarkably in tune with what common sense has been telling us for years. Children who watched the fast-paced cartoons did significantly worse on the attention and memory testing than the children in the other two groups. There was no difference in performance between the educational TV (Caillou) group and the drawing group.

So what was it about the fast-paced show that had a negative effect on the children's brains? What the researchers concluded was that the unnatural pace of the cartoon sequences was overstimulating and stressful to the child's brain. The human-Muppet interactions on Sesame Street are naturally paced, whereas the Sponge Bob sequences were unnaturally rapid and the overstimulation from the "surreal" pacing may have taxed the children's brains.

In an editorial in the same issue of Pediatrics, Dimitri Christakis, M.D., of Seattle Children's hospital, says that although the study was small, its results are critically important: "Connecting fast-paced television viewing to deficits in executive function, regardless of whether they are transient, has profound implications for children's cognitive and social development that need to be considered and reacted to."

What does this study mean for parents who want their child to have a healthy brain? In my view, it speaks to the importance of even more monitoring of "screen time" for children. A steady diet of fast-paced television or fast-paced video games could well turn into attentional problems that are labeled as ADHD (inattentive type). It also argues strongly that parents should not allow kids to watch cartoons that are unnaturally fast-paced. If parents do not want to stress their child's brain, sticking to a maximum of one hour of PBS children's shows daily is a good rule of thumb. Big bird seems to be a better choice than SpongeBob for kids.