Parents, your instincts are correct: SpongeBob SquarePants is a bad influence.
A research study has found that watching even nine minutes of the fast-paced cartoon can have immediate negative effects on a preschooler's brain function.
Compared with children who watched a sleepier cartoon or children who watched none, four-year-olds who watched the frenetic show did significantly worse on a series of tests measuring the brain's executive function, the umbrella term for the collection of skills including attention, working memory and self-regulation that are strongly associated with academic success.
"Most parents focus more on quantity than they do on content. It's about more than turning off the television. It's about changing the channel, " says Dimitri Christakis, the director of the Seattle Children's Research Institute, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal Pediatrics.
In the experiment, psychology researchers at the University of Virginia asked three groups of four-year-olds to either sit and draw, watch part of a PBS show "about a typical U.S. preschool boy," or watch part of an episode of a "very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea," the authors wrote in the paper. (While the SpongeBob reference is obvious, Dr. Christakis says the PBS show is likely Caillou.)
After a number of cognitive tests, children who watched SpongeBob scored about 10 per cent lower than the other two groups.
Dr. Christakis says the likeliest explanation is overstimulation. The slower show changed scenes on average every 34 seconds, while the speedy clip changed every 11 seconds. Dr. Christakis calls this "supernatural pacing."
"You're asking your brain to process something it's not well suited to. And it's tired," he says.
Dr. Christakis notes that more research is needed to answer many questions, including whether these effects are long lasting.
"At a minimum, parents shouldn't have their kid watch SpongeBob before they take the kindergarten entrance test," he jokes.