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Boob tube, in nine minutes

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Esther Cepeda
September 18, 2011
— In the immortal words of nerve-wracked undersea driving instructor Mrs. Puff: “Oh SpongeBob!”

Our favorite gap-toothed sea dweller is in trouble these days. Like high-calorie junk food and secondhand cigarette smoke, he has been found to be a credible threat to our children’s health and well-being.


SpongeBob SquarePants and his Bikini Bottom brethren’s cartoons can cause problems in 4-year-olds after just nine minutes of viewing—not even half the length of the standard episode—according to researchers from the University of Virginia.


In a study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson found that those nine minutes were all it took for kids who watched fast-paced television cartoons to perform significantly worse on attention, time management and memory tasks, compared to children who watched a moderately paced educational cartoon.


Lillard and Peterson quantified what I learned almost 20 years ago during the opening 60 seconds of the first episode of “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” Ren Hoek, the crabby cartoon Chihuahua, begs his sidekick Stimpy, a loveable but dim cat, to turn off the television.


“Listen to me, man, I’m your friend—don’t you know cartoons will ruin your mind?” exclaims Hoek, palpating Stimpy’s jellybean-sized gray matter. “Look what it’s done to your brain!”


OK, so theirs was not the authoritative, scientific and peer-reviewed conclusion that Lillard and Peterson offer, but it’s still true that, to use nutritional terms, most cartoons are chocolate bars and not stalks of broccoli. But will SpongeBob really make your kid stupid?


While the authors never say anything specific about the “very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea,” they do warn that the long-known link between TV and later attention problems could be even more serious if just nine minutes of super-excited cartoons can immediately and severely affect a 4-year-old’s ability to perform tasks. And though it’s fun to make jokes and over- or under-react when scientific research touches on pop culture, the authors should be thanked for their statements of medical facts that should be obvious but, obviously, aren’t.


If the only effect this information has on anyone who has ever tried to keep a child entertained for more than a few minutes is even a slight awareness of the risks of hyper-loud, brightly colored, fast-moving entertainment, then the research will not have been in vain. Awareness is just about all we can hope for now that contemporary American life has become full of overstimulation, some of which we can’t control, some that’s too valued to do away with.


We live in a world where flashing lights and blinking, animated, talking things command our attention at every moment, sometimes even in our sleep as our gadgets alert us to new text messages and emails. Billboards on streets and highways play 15-second videos begging for our attention, regardless of the impact on our driving abilities. We can’t even ride in an elevator—or in some cases, use the rest room—without getting video content forced on upon us. And we seem to like it this way.


Nielsen, the media research company, predicts that by Christmas this year, about half of all Americans will own a smartphone, which can capture and play back pictures and videos, and access nearly anything on the Internet. Let that sink in: they didn’t say one in two adults, they said one in two people.

Last Christmas I found that the super-expensive iPad was a popular children’s gift. One mom of a 14-month-old told me at the time that it had been a grandparent’s gift and had become indispensable. Check the app store, there are tons of interactive apps for kids age “zero and up” such as “AlphaBaby,” into which parents can integrate their own voices, pictures and videos.


Less affluent parents stick to lower-tech, but infinitely more ubiquitous, hand-held electronic games or backseat DVD players. This way, kids are entertained during even the shortest car trips and down times so the adult can drive, do errands and check that BlackBerry.


Is this the world we want to live in? It doesn’t matter—this is today’s reality, and all we can do is know the perils and do the best we can to blunt their effects. Even the always frustrated Mrs. Puff and Ren Hoek know that.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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