'SpongeBob' in Hot Water

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Fast-paced programming in shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants may not be suitable for young children, researchers say. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics is one of a few looking at whether what children watch — in addition to how long they watch — affects their ability to learn and pay attention.

In the experiment, 60 4-year-olds with similar educational and family backgrounds were randomly assigned to nine minutes of watching a fast-paced cartoon, an educational one or left to draw. After the experiment, researchers asked the children to perform a series of tests that measures executive function, including "goal-directed behavior… attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation and delay of gratification," the authors write.

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They also considered parents' reports of previous TV watching and attention baselines for their children to make sure some participants didn't already have attention issues before the experiment.

In all of the tests, children who watched fast-paced programming scored much lower than the other two groups with results similar to most children.

Angeline Lillard, a co-author of the study, told the Associated Press that such shows negatively affect children's "ability to learn and self-control immediately after watching."

Another pediatrician not affiliated with the work wrote an editorial urging researchers and parents to look at the quality and quantity of children's programming consumed at young ages. For instance, a program that changes scenes three times in one minute may be considered fast-paced in comparison to other shows where characters remain in one place or are tracked as they move about (Blue's Clues, anyone?).

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The commentary also notes some of the limits to the research. For instance, is this impairment fleeting or long-lasting? What about children of different ages? Though the results seem clear, there may be other factors that couldn't be accounted for and should be addressed in other studies with more children.

Casting doubt over the study's results, a Nickelodeon representative pointed out that 4-year-olds aren't SpongeBob's primary audience, and that children between the ages of 6 and 10 are targeted instead, according to the same AP article.

Photo by whoohoo120/Flickr.com

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