Go ahead, SpongeBob, rot my kids' brains

The undersea dweller takes heat for impeding learning -- but my family won\'t stop loving him


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 13, 2011 8:04PM (UTC)

Monday was definitely not the best day ever in Bikini Bottom. SpongeBob SquarePants, who has in the past come under fire for suspected homosexuality  and contributing to childhood obesity, now stands accused of ruining your kids' attention spans.

A new study on "The Effects of Fast Paced Cartoons" published in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests that watching even a few minutes of the world's greatest Krabby Patty flipper "can have immediate impact on a child’s neurological functions." Researchers from the department of psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, had a group 60 4-year-olds engage in a few minutes of drawing with crayons, or watching either the genteel PBS Kids cartoon "Caillou" or the long-running Nickelodeon series about a good-natured lunatic who lives in a pineapple under the sea. The results? The SpongeBob kids "had impairment in their executive function compared with children who were assigned a drawing task and those who watched educational television." As professor Angeline Lillard explained, "It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child’s ability to concentrate immediately afterward." It didn't take long for Fox to ask if "Watching SpongeBob Can Lead to Learning Problems?" and the National Review to gloat that "He might make you stupid."

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But there are far more important issues to consider here. Namely, have you ever watched Caillou? I'm pro executive function and all for low-key pastimes like drawing, but I question the validity of any study in which that kid emerges victorious over SpongeBob. Simply put, Caillou is the worst. His theme song is, "I'm Caillou! Caillou! Caillou! That's me!" On his PBS Kids cartoon, the saucer-eyed Canadian moppet engages in wholesome learning activities while a grandmotherly narrator says things like, "Caillou asked his mommy for a goldfish." Maybe 15 minutes of him will put a kid more on task for an academic project, but have the researchers considered that he'll also drive an otherwise rational parent to throw her television out the window? SpongeBob, on the other hand, is messy, chaotic and often utterly destructive. In other words, he kicks that little twit's butt.

The study -- and the response to it -- say much about adult expectations of children. From birth, the ability to be still is considered a highly desirable trait in a child. Infants who sleep a lot and don't cry are called "good" babies. Preschoolers who play quietly are praised as star students. But most 4-year-olds, mercifully, are a lot more like SpongeBob than Caillou. I'm not talking about children with genuine attention or behavioral issues. I'm talking about regular kids, in all their boisterousness and chaos. That's part of why SpongeBob is such a delight -- he's eminently relatable.

And though the point of the study may have been that it only takes a few minutes of SpongeBob to warp your child's brain, I'd argue that a few minutes, or even a whopping half-hour episode, is a tiny portion of a child's day. Responsible parenting doesn't involve hours of mind-numbing in front of the idiot box. But you can watch something that's actually entertaining and funny and still have plenty of time left for all the enriching activities and edutainment that will set little Brooklyn and Talullah on the path toward perfect SAT scores.

For generations, popular entertainment and its effect on kids has been a contentious issue. When it comes to what's appropriate for children, parents need to gauge for themselves how words and images affect their own offspring. Not everything is right for every kid -- and guess what? Not every show claims to be mind food for preschoolers. Most of us know the difference between "Sesame Street" and "South Park." But on certain points there should be no dispute -- like the fact that "SpongeBob SquarePants" is freaking genius. And so were the Marx Brothers, and Mad magazine, and Looney Tunes and Rocky and Bullwinkle, whose characters were subversive and occasionally violent and so hilarious that our parents happily sat down with us to laugh right along. 

Being able to sit down quietly isn't the only valuable skill a child can learn. She can also learn that it's OK to laugh and be weird, and that you don't need a license to drive a sandwich. In childhood there's a time to draw quietly with crayons, and there is a time to run around like a nut. And parents, if you're looking for a sweet, realistic role model for a 4-year-old, you'll do just fine with the guy who just happens to be absorbent and yellow and porous.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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