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SpongeBob study should be tossed into deep sea

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Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Come on, you know the answer. SpongeBob SquarePants! Absorbent and yellow and porous is he! SpongeBob Squ — sorry, maybe that was a little too fast-paced.

A study from the University of Virginia published in Pediatrics this week concluded that the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants impairs children’s “executive functions.” It’s Pediatrics’ big day — with articles about things like “Adjunctive Oral Methylprednisolone in Pediatric Acute Pyelonephritis,” which alleviates renal scarring, it’s not often that the magazine’s findings relate to people on a personal level. And so I don’t want to rain on Pediatrics’ parade, but let’s face it: SpongeBob is an awesome show, and its pacing doesn’t hurt anyone.

During the study, researchers divided 60 four-year-olds into three groups. One group colored, one group watched part of a SpongeBob episode, and one group watched part of an episode of an educational PBS show called Caillou, which is about a kid who goes to preschool. Then the kids had to do four tasks to test their “executive functions.” A Towers of Hanoi problem tested their working memory. Touching their head when the researcher said to touch their toes (and vice versa) tested their self-regulation. Repeating strings of digits backward tested their working memory capacity. And waiting to eat some marshmallows in order to be allotted more tested their delay of gratification.

The kids who watched SpongeBob scored significantly lower on these tests than the other groups. And thus, according to the study, fast-paced television has immediate negative effects.

There are many things about this research that rubbed me the wrong way. For one, they tested four-year-olds, who are too young to grasp SpongeBob’s pungent cultural commentary. For another, they don’t justify wanting to test for immediate results, even though other long-term television studies have already been done. But I’d like to focus on the researchers’ main oversight: they weren’t really comparing fast-paced TV to slow-paced TV. If so, they would’ve used fast-paced and slow-paced sequences from the same program. A study they reference looked into that, by the way, and found that there was no difference in skills afterward. Instead, they compared an interesting show to a boring show. Obviously, the kids wanted to use their executive functions less after being torn away from the interesting show.

Imagine if they tried to do a study like that to you. You go into this awesome office, they give you a juicebox or something, and get you settled in. Heck, they can even call your mom to have her rate your general attention span like they did in the real study. Eventually, they hook you up with James Bond and then randomly turn it off and tell you to touch your toes, but only if — wait for it — they tell you to touch your head. You tell me if you wouldn’t tell them where to put their executive functions.
On the other hand, maybe they show you some lame movie like The Village (you didn’t like that movie, did you?), mercifully shut it off after a while, and then tell you to do some things. You’re primed to do whatever they want because you’re having a terrible time and you’re not focused on the TV program.

Boring and educational is good for docility, but when you watch something to have a good time and to engage in it, you’re probably not that interested in doing serious activities afterward — preschool-aged or otherwise. But if people are looking for TV to be harmful, they’ll probably find it. “The only people who don’t like a Krabby Patty have never tasted one!”