Is Spongebob Impacting Baby Development? Thoughts on the New Research

Did you read the latest research about the impact of certain fast paced tv shows on kids?  In a nutshell, fast paced kids tv shows, like Spongebob Squarepants, were shown to reduce kids' attention span and  self control.  Basically the researchers at the University of Virginia compared 4 year olds who watched certain fast paced television, slower paced television or those that colored.  Kids who watched less than 10 minutes of a fast-paced children's cartoon did worse afterward at tasks requiring focus and self-control than did kids who watched a slower-paced cartoon and kids who colored independently.

What should we take away from this new research and what does it have to do with baby development?

1.  All tv is not created equal:  Dr Dimitri Christakis of the Seattle Children's Research Institute noted in an editorial in the journal Pediatrics that it is important to distinguish between "fast paced" television and slower paced tv.  The children in the study who watched the slower paced shows  performed at about the same level as the kids who colored independently.   We should take care in how we interpret this.  There needs to be more research to help us draw any type of conclusive finding.  It seems difficult to believe that a passive activity like watching a "slower paced" television program provides the same benefits as independent non-electronic play like coloring.  Of course, that is not what the study concluded; however, many people will read it that way.  Don't be one of those people.

2.  Just because a show is geared toward a certain age group does not mean that younger kids aren't watching it.  Babies have big brothers and sisters who watch different shows and the baby gets exposed to it.  I even have colleagues who enjoy watching Spongebob with their kids.  Kids as young as 2 and a half.  The concept of fast paced programming became glaringly clear to me when my baby was just days old.  She had colic and cried almost constantly.  Neither one of us slept much for the first 4 months of her life.  During those late nights when I would get up to change her and nurse her back to sleep, I would often turn on something interesting I could count on:  SportsCenter on ESPN.  I finally had to stop watching it because the images flashed by at such a rate, it was overstimulating to me.  Even if my daughter got back to sleep, it was difficult for me.  And my brain is developed (for the most part).

Today the average age that kids, actually babies,  begin to watch television is 4 months. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 67% of infants and toddlers spend an average of two hours a day watching television or some other type of screen.  (Note that this just isn't television -Look around for baby aps -they are everywhere.)  The concern is that excess stimulation from fast paced shows will impact the brain, leading to problems later.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children under the age of 2.  Do we have a problem here?

3.  Television is a great babysitter but not a great brain or body builder.   One of the most consistent baby sitters around is "educational tv" .    Most parents will tell you that they occasionally, or more often, put their kids in front of the tv so they can get something done.  Most of us admit that it isn't the greatest solution; although some swear that their kids are "learning a ton" through these shows.   Think about your child's demeanor when he is watching his "show" versus when he is playing independently.  Most kids are moving around and talking or laughing when they play independently.  Not the case watching tv.  They sit there mesmerized by the electronic images, no matter how educational they may be.  And we wonder why we need to have "get kids moving" initiatives.  I am not saying that I don't occasionally use "educational tv" as a babysitter.  What I am saying is that we all need to understand the impact of parking our kids in front of the tv for long stretches of time - educational programming or not.

While the results of this study are interesting, as with all research, we need to apply critical thinking (and additional research) to draw definitive conclusions.  Common sense tells us that faced paced television can impact even adults so it makes sense that children are impacted by it.  The important difference is that children's (and infant's) brains are still developing are are vulnerable to fast paced images that erode their concentration.  Take some time to think about not only the television programs, but all electronic media, that your children and infants are exposed to.  It might be worth taking a week to decrease their exposure and see what the impact might be.  This research is good information for parents to keep top of mind as we decide what type and how much electronic media we allow our children (and babies) to watch.

One thought on “Is Spongebob Impacting Baby Development? Thoughts on the New Research”

  1. Thanks for the comment. I think the key is awareness. Anything with an “educational” tag seems to give parents a comfort level that can be deceptive. The other thing is that we are simply not hearing about this information in the mainstream media which is where alot of busy parents get their news. The more good solid information we can get out for parents, the better!

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