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.
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.
Explaining the Effects of Fast-Paced Cartoons
The fast-paced shows may have a negative impact, Lillard says, because of the rapid presentation of the events. These engage the senses rather than the brain areas engaged in memory, controlling inhibition, and problem solving, she says.
When a child sees a cartoon character that jumps from one activity to another, much faster than in real life, she says, ''they become neurologically exhausted and it inhibits the ability to concentrate."
SpongeBob is actually targeted not to 4-year-olds, but to 6- to 11-year-olds, Bittler says. He takes issue also with the fact that most of the children were white and from middle-class or upper middle-class families.
"Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's target demographic, watch 9 minutes of programming is questionable methodology," Bittler says.
"It could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust,” he says.
Effects of Cartoons: Perspectives
Fast-paced cartoons do tend to overload the child's brain, says Rahil Briggs, PsyD, director of the Montefiore Medical Center's Healthy Steps Program. She reviewed the study findings.
Children have to grasp concepts foreign to the real world, she says. "A sponge lives in the bottom of the sea. He talks." There are lots of lights, sounds, and fast action.
Some experts argue that this sort of viewing prepares children for the multitasking world they will enter. Briggs agrees that today's children, like most of us today, will need to multitask.
However, she says, "I'm not sure we've agreed multitasking is the optimal state for us." While a little is useful, she says, "I don't think constant multitasking is a goal."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting television for children and discourages it altogether for those under two years. However, Briggs says the reality is that most children are going to watch at least some television.
For parents, she says, being aware of some of the effects is good advice. That way, they can decide how much television their children should watch, what kind, and when.
"The bottom line is to realize that these sorts of [fast-paced] shows are taking your kids' brains into another place for awhile," she says.
Letting kids watch the fast-paced cartoons is probably not ideal right before bed, homework, or school, she says.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, of the Seattle Children's Research Institute, University of Washington, calls the study findings ''robust." He says that even transient effects on thinking skills could affect a child's development and need to be considered.