Sunday, September 18, 2011

Leave SpongeBob aloooooooone!

I have to admit a certain bias here. I'm a big fan of Mr. Squarepants. I like the classic Fleischer look with the occasional Wolverton grotesque touches, the witty asides to the more sophisticated viewers, the sensibility that built the climax of the first episode around a Tiny Tim song and the cultural literacy to pick the lovely and wonderfully apt "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight" for the song in question (and, of course, the fact that in Bikini Bottom you can build a campfire under water).

SpongeBob has been all over the news lately, even making the teaser for at least one local station's 11:00 broadcast. The cause of the furor was a recent study, described here on All Things Considered:
"I would not encourage parents of a 4-year-old boy to have him watch SpongeBob right before he goes in for his kindergarten readiness assessment," Dimitri Christakis told Shots. He's a child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital who wrote a commentary on the new study, which was just published in the journal Pediatrics.

But fans of the optimistic denizen of Bikini Bottom can take solace in the fact that the new study comes with a boatload of caveats. Just 20 4-year-olds were tested after watching the popular Nickolodeon show, and they watched it for nine minutes. That's a very small sample size, and it hardly reflects the real TV-watching habits of young children, who commonly watch two to five hours a day of TV.

And the researchers, psychologists Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, didn't measure if the problems with attention and executive function lasted. But they did compare the SpongeBob watchers to 20 children who watched Caillou, a slower-paced PBS show that features a sweet yet whiny preschooler. Another 20 colored for 9 minutes.

Neither of those groups had problems with the tests, which involved remembering a series of numbers, following rules, and delaying gratification. (That test asks the preschoolers to resist eating a plateful of Goldfish crackers for 5 minutes, which would be hard for many members of the NPR Science Desk.)

But the kids who watched SpongeBob, which changed scenes every 11 seconds, did significantly worse on the tests than either the children who colored, or those who watched educational TV. Caillou changed scenes every 34 seconds.

Other studies have found that children who watch a lot of TV as preschoolers have more problems with attention in the elementary-school years. Christakis, who has conducted several of those studies, says that the findings of the new study are consistent with what he's found. It's not SpongeBob himself who's the culprit, he says, but fast-paced or violent shows. "It's overstimulation that causes the problem," he says. The theory is that overstimulation while a child's brain is developing makes it harder to focus on sustained tasks later on.
This is the classic one-two punch of so much behavorial science: observational studies with data confounded to within an inch of its life* and little n experiments that answer a trivial (and in this case painfully obvious) question that relates only tangentially to the major issues.

This incredibly hyped study basically showed that small children have trouble concentrating immediately after they get wound up. This conclusion is not exactly news worthy. Anyone who has ever dealt with groups of pre-schoolers can tell you that the transition from squealing with laughter to sitting quietly can be difficult and that's really all this study tells us.

There has been a long history of research, going back at least to Seduction of the Innocent, built around puritanical disapproval of children seeking out stimulating entertainment. It is based on a vision of young people as miniature Roderick Ushers with constitutions so delicate that anything but lives of unrelenting blandness would damage them forever.

I don't buy it. Kids are remarkably resilient, often emerging relatively unscarred from some truly tough situations. It's difficult to believe that a few extra camera angles would cause them irreparable damage.

More importantly children have an evolutionary imperative to seek out stimulation. Their appetite for excitement and laughter matches and often exceeds their appetite for food and drink. There's a reason for this. Our creativity, our curiosity and our ability to organize and explore our world through narrative are all connected to that desire for fun.

This is not to say you should give your preschooler the remote any more than you should give a four-year-old free run of the refrigerator. Providing structure and maintaining balance are part of a parent's job, as is reading to your kids and taking them outside to play and any number of other things that everyone knows are important for a growing child. Television should certainly take a backseat to these things. You can even make a good case for eliminating it entirely.

Just make sure it's based on common sense, not questionable research.

*yeah, 'data' is plural -- what are you, the grammar police?

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