This week we learned that Brits have a soft spot for Scooby Doo, naming the voracious mutt the healthiest cartoon for kids because he's always on the run (from ghosts and to hamburgers, but still...)
Now it's SpongeBob SquarePants' turn in the docket. The Nickelodeon staple has stuck around for a lot longer than most cartoons ever do. Its pilot episode hit television screens in May of 1999 and the franchise is stronger than ever. But even though it’s been around for (seemingly) forever, it’s now being accused of shortening the attention spans of the kids that are watching it.
Now, a University of Virginia study “claims to have found evidence that the TV show moves too fast for little kids, and thus erodes their ability to pay attention,” Bloomberg reports. This complaint, by, has been floating around about children’s television since at least the late ‘70s.
That's when Sesame Street was accused of creating Generation ADD with its short segments, leading to a book by a Canadian (non-academic), Morris Wolfe, who came up with a theory about "jolts per minute" when comparing Canadian and US kids TV programming.
In the UVA study, Bloomberg notes, “researchers found that a group of 20 4-year-olds who watched the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants for just nine minutes performed significantly worse on tests of ‘executive function’ than did like-sized groups of 4-year-olds who either watched the animated show Caillou, a relatively sedate program, or played with paper, crayons and markers for nine minutes.”
In the SpongeBob sequence, scene changes occur every 11 seconds while the calmer (Canadian!) Caillou’s scene changes occur every 34 seconds.
The tests of “executive function” tests consisted of asking children to touch their heads and toes as well as repeat strings of numbers in reverse order, which might interest Caillou but would bore most kids into noncompliance, we're guessing. The SpongeBob-soaked tots “worked at just half the capacity of those in the other two groups,” Bloomberg reports, which the supposed reason being that “their brains were exhausted from having worked so hard to follow the fast animation.”
Bloomberg, to its credit, debunks the finding, pointing out that countless similar tests have been done over the years that have led to no agreement on whether fast editing leads to slower firing of the synapses.
One test that is cited was done by the University of Massachusetts took place in the 1970s and had three groups of four-year-olds. Two of them watched different episodes of Sesame Street (one with faster scene changes than the other) while the third listened to stories read to them by their parents. The latter group kicked butt, right? Nope, they all did about the same, according to Bloomberg.
So, sorry, SpongeBob. If you think you’re the one shortening the attention spans of America’s youth, get in line. There’s a long line of characters ahead of you.