The Mugging of SpongeBob

SpongeBob SquarePants may be hazardous to your mental development—if you’re a four-year-old. At least that’s what two psychologists at the University of Virginia claim, based upon a study they conducted that may have as many holes as the average sponge who lives under the sea. 

In the first paragraph of an article published this week in the academic journal Pediatrics, Angeline S. Lilliard and Jennifer Peterson set up their study with a pick-and-choose somewhat slanted view of television. According to these psychologists, “correlational studies link early television viewing with deficits in executive function . .  . a collection of prefrontal skills underlying goal-directed behavior, including attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation, and delay of gratification.” Translated into English, we conclude that psychologists don’t speak English. 

To make sure no one misreads the study as anything but pure empirical science, they toss in “covariant assessment,” “covariate,” “posthoc analyses,” “backward digit span,” “encoding,” “cognitive depletion,” and something known as the “Tower of Hanoi,” not to be mistaken, apparently, for the Hanoi Hilton, or the Tower of Babel, which this study seems most likely to emulate. 

For their subject group, they rounded up four-year-olds from “a database of families willing to participate.” Three groups of children were given the same four separate tasks. Those who watched a truncated version of a “SpongeBob” cartoon, which has scene changes an average of every 11 seconds, fared worse in the measurements than did the groups that watched a more “realistic” and “educational” PBS cartoon (“Caillou”) that had an average scene change of 34 seconds. The third group (known as a “control” group) drew things and participated in all the tasks. On all four tests, “SpongeBob” lost. The fact the researchers labeled “Caillou” as educational could reveal pre-conceived bias; even a cursory look at “SpongeBob,” although primarily entertainment, reveals numerous social and educational issues that could lead to further discussion. 

The pre-schoolers were mostly White, from middle-class and upper-class families. Thus, there was no randomly-selected group, something critical in most such studies. The researchers do acknowledge this, as well as a few defects in the study itself. Possibly salivating over future grants, they tell us that “further research . . . is needed.”

The reality may not be that four-year-olds who watch “SpongeBob” and similar cartoons had developmental defects but that they are far more interested in the cartoon than in other activities and temporarily suspend those “good quality” activities while they remember the cartoon and think of other events or issues that SpongeBob and the cast got into. The researchers measured the students’ responses shortly after watching the cartoons; perhaps measurements a few hours or a week later might have given different results. 

Nevertheless, the researchers—hung up on standard deviations, regression analysis, and Cronbach’s Alpha, among other empirical tests—didn’t do the most basic of all research. They didn’t ask the children what they thought about the cartoons, nor any questions leading to why the children who viewed “SpongeBob” may not have performed as well the other two groups on tests that may or may not be of value. It’s entirely possible that watching fast-paced well-written tightly-directed animated cartoons may be more fun—and more productive—than watching slower-paced educational cartoons. But we don’t know because the research was quantified. 

The wounded response by Nickelodeon, which airs “SpongeBob Squarepants,” isn’t much better than the academic study. Squeezed into a sentence, the comment is that the cartoon is for 6–11 year olds, not the four-year-olds who were tested. The Nick PR machine wants us to believe that even if everything the researchers said was true, it doesn’t matter because the cartoon isn’t aimed at four-year-olds. Apparently, even if older siblings are watching “SpongeBob” or their parents are watching horror, adventure, or war movies it doesn’t matter because those forms of entertainment aren’t for four-year-olds. 

For more than eight decades, animated cartoons have come under fire by all kinds of academic researchers and certain “we-do-good” public groups. From 1930 to 1968, the Hays office, ensconced in Puritan ideals of morality, censored films and cartoons for all kinds of reasons. By the 1960s, academic researchers began questioning the violence in cartoons, focusing primarily upon the Warner Brothers characters. For a few years, television programmers, either believing themselves to be great pillars of morality or afraid of losing sponsors, forcibly retired many of the most popular cartoons from the screen. 

At least half of the studies concluded that watching violence could be one of the factors that lead to violent acts. Another group of studies showed little correlation. But, stripping away the academic verbiage, the most logical conclusion of all the studies that denuded a small forest was that persons pre-disposed to violence may become violent if exposed to violence in cartoons. Certainly, watching Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons won’t cause a Quaker to go out and mug Baptists. 

The mugging that SpongeBob (and other characters in quick-sequencing action) got is another attempt to quantify life by exorcizing a small part of life, running tests, and trying to explain human cognition and development without understanding humans.

Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a story of America’s counterculture as seen through the eyes of a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her life for three decades.






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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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