New Report: This Is Your Kid's Brain on 'SpongeBob'

Talk about tough news: Preschoolers’ brain function was worse after viewing “a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea,” according to a new study published today in Pediatrics.

Four-year-olds who viewed just a 9-minute clip of SpongeBob (we're going to go out on a limb here and guess that's the cartoon they're talking about) performed worse on every single cognitive task the researchers gave them when compared to kids who watched a clip of “a realistic Public Broadcasting Service cartoon about a typical US-preschool aged boy” and kids who used the nine minutes to draw. (Interestingly, there wasn't a big difference in the performance of kids who drew and kids who watched the PBS show.)

Researchers think the difference might be because the show about the sponge flipped through scenes at an extraordinarily fast pace: a complete scene change occurred every 11 seconds, compared to every 34 seconds, on average, for the PBS show. The cartoon may also affect concentration because it's based on "extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world," study author Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, said in a press release. Trying to make sense of all that activity taxes young brains and uses up the energy and brain power necessary to problem solve and delay gratification.

Think of it this way: Your child’s brain can only handle so much at one time. If a lot of his energy is devoted to figuring out a fast-paced cartoon, he might not have a lot of brain power left to deal with, say, your request that he help pick up the living room.

The authors of the study were careful to point out that their study only looked at a small group of four-year-olds who watched 9 minutes of a TV show. It’s entirely possible that kids’ brains adjust to the faster pacing as they age and gain life experience.

The real take-away message of this study seems to be that some TV shows are better for kids than others. While the study didn't mention specifics, it suggests that slower-paced shows such as Caillou, Sid the Science Kid or Sesame Street might be less likely to fry your child's attention span.

Plus, watch our series Oh, Really? about TV fun facts!

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