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Fast-Paced Cartoons May Hurt Kids' Attention, Memory

In Study, Kids Who Viewed a Fast-Paced, High-Action Cartoon Did Worse on Tests Than Kids Who Drew or Viewed an Educational Cartoon
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 12, 2011 -- Children who watched just nine minutes of a fast-paced, high-action cartoon performed worse on routine tests of attention and other skills compared to children who drew pictures or watched slower-paced educational cartoons, according to new research.

The 4-year-olds who viewed the fast-paced cartoon, then took the tests, ''were handicapped in their readiness for learning," says researcher Angeline Lillard, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

"The specific tests that we gave involve following rules, remembering what they had been told, delaying gratification, and problem solving," Lillard tells WebMD. Viewers of the fast-paced cartoon did the worst on the tests.

The tests were given right after the drawing or viewing, she tells WebMD. She calls the effect ''immediate and strong.'' However, she can't say how long the effect might last.

Based on her study, however, "I would say parents shouldn't be letting their kids watch these shows in the van on the way to school."

The research is published in the journal Pediatrics.

Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler took exception with the study, citing the small number of study participants and other problems. Nickelodeon produces SpongeBob SquarePants, the fast-paced cartoon viewed in the study.

Study Details

Experts have long debated whether TV adversely affects children's attention, Lillard says. Some studies show that children who watch entertainment or violent TV have ill effects later when it comes to attention and sticking to a task, for instance.

Other researchers disagree.

Less research has been done on the very immediate effects of a fast-paced show. Lillard decided to focus on that.

She randomly assigned 60 4-year-old boys and girls to one of three groups:

  • One group watched a fast-paced cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea
  • One group watched a slower-paced educational cartoon that shows a typical U.S. preschooler
  • One group drew with crayons and markers.

Right after the viewing, the children were given a variety of tests to assess their attention, problem-solving ability, and other skills. In one test, the researchers measured their ability to delay gratification by seeing if they could hold off on eating snacks. In another, they measured problem-solving abilities by asking children to move disks from one peg to another.

The kids who viewed the fast-paced cartoon did worse than the other two groups on the tests. For instance, 70% of the kids who drew passed the problem-solving tests with disks and pegs (a good result for the age). Thirty-five percent of the educational TV viewers did, but just 15% of the fast-paced cartoon viewers did.

Those who watched the fast-paced cartoon were also less able than the others to delay gratification and to follow directions.

The study has limitations, including its small size.

Lillard can't say how long-lasting the effects are. "We've done a follow-up study with 6-year-olds, and still saw the effects, but not as strong," she says.

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