Monday, September 12, 2011

Pineapples and Oranges

The question mark means "we have no idea." (Photo: ABC News)
SpongeBob SquarePants: he's been on the year for over a decade and has gotten a lot of praise, a lot of money, and a lot of controversy. Given his popularity, that's not surprising. For the most part, the religious right has been doing most of the sponge-bashing, accusing him of spreading the gay agenda, then the green agenda. But the news outlets have been discussing him even more as the word is going around that he actually makes kids stupider.

Researchers at the University of Virginia recently did a study whose results were published in the journal Pediatrics. The study tested 60 four-year-olds and their executive function after doing an activity for nine minutes. One-third were asked to draw a picture, one-third watched an episode of SpongeBob, while one-third watched an episode of Calliou, a plodding, slow-paced Canadian series for preschoolers which airs on PBS. They were then asked to perform a number of activities, including the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, touching the opposite body part of that they were told (for example, touching their toes when they were asked to touch their head and vice versa), and a delayed gratification test involving seeing whether or not they could wait for a snack when it was placed in front of them. The children who watched the sponge performed poorer on the activities than those who watched the bald-headed Canuck or drew a picture.

Of course, the news media is discussing this as if it is gospel, proof that SpongeBob and similar cartoons make kids stupider. This study as a whole reminds me of a study that was done on cartoon violence I discussed on Sugared Tomatoes back when that was a thing, both in subject matter and methodology. If anything, this study is an interesting Step One in researching and studying whether or not television has a long-term negative effect on children's intelligence/reaction, but there's a lot more to be done. The Step Two and beyond, however, will probably never be done- or at least not right now.

A number of interesting questions and thoughts this study brings up: first and foremost, as was pointed out, SpongeBob isn't really meant for four-year-olds. A representative for Nickelodeon stated: "SpongeBob is produced for 6-to-11-year-olds. Four-year-olds are clearly not the intended demographic for this show...having 60 non-diverse kids who are not part of the show's target demographic watch 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology." For that matter, it was only 20 kids who watched the sponge, which is a pretty small sample size.

Also, given said small sample size as well as the smaller specifics of the study, there's a lot more research that could be done. As my buddy over at Stitch Kingdom joked, so far the study only seems to show that you shouldn't show SpongeBob immediately before a test. One would need to study the long-term effects of television watching on children to see if there was any negative effect, not just the effects of attention span immediately afterwards.

For that matter, a larger sampling, not only of test subjects, but of material, would be interesting to see as well. For example, the study makes reference to another study that pointed out that there seemed to be no difference in reaction in kids who watched a slow-paced segment of Sesame Street and a fast-paced one- also pointing out that that study was done in 1977 and the pace of Sesame has increased in the years since. In this case, this is a comparison between similar material, in that it comes from the same program. Comparing SpongeBob and Caillou is like comparing apples and oranges- or perhaps given the sponge's abode, pineapples and oranges. As Matt Blum over at Wired's GeekDad pointed out, it would be interesting to see testing with other series added to the mix as well. He points out Phineas and Ferb, and I have to disagree with his statement that that series goes for multiple levels of humor where the sponge doesn't- I think both shows are quite similar both in terms of humor style and aiming for both adults and kids. It would be very interesting to compare and contrast groups of shows meant for various target audeinces like Caillou and Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob, Ferb, and WordGirl, a series on PBS meant for an older demographic which has a Bullwinkleesque self-aware humor style much in the same vein as the sponge and the platypus. Compare different episodes of the series too, like the Sesame study- there are a few SpongeBob episodes that take place in a single setting, I recall, such as one of the first where Squidward tries in vain to learn how to blow bubbles. The use of drawing as a control is intriguing, too- some children would be more violent or overactive in their art than others, I would assume. Is there any influence in that?

There are so many directions you could go to elaborate on the findings, though sadly, it probably won't happen- at least not right now. Certainly, the SpongeBob study is interesting to think about, but right now, much like the sponge itself, it's so thin that it's full of holes.

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