Is Sponge Bob Bad for Your Brain?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

This small study is getting lots of coverage in the mainstream media and I think it is an excellent example of how scientists raise an "interesting possibility" only to have journalists misconstrue it as a "sensational fact".

The study in question was published this week in Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy or Pediatrics.  Researchers studied 60 four-year olds to determine the effect of fast-paced, fantastical television viewing on the children's executive function.  Executive function is critical for goal-directed behavior and includes attention, focus, working memory, and problem solving.

In the study, the children were randomly assigned to one of three groups where one group watched 9 minutes of Sponge Bob SquarePants, a second group watched 9 minutes of a PBS educational cartoon, and a third group spent 9 minutes coloring.  Each group then completed a series of tests designed to assess executive function.  The Sponge Bob group performed more poorly on the tests than the other two groups which suggets that this cartoon impairs executive function.

As I described in my opening, scientists would probably look at this study in one way, while journalists would report it in another.  Here's a plausible scientific perspective on the results: It seems that viewing a show with fast paced scene changes and fantastical content, may put the brain into a certain condition for rapidly absorbing a wide range of inputs.  That condition may not lend itself to deep analytical thought and structured problem solving, but is perhaps best for integrating lots of information as quickly as possible.

In this regard, the study would suggest that the brain can adapt to its immediate environment and take on a set of characteristics that is optimal for the situation at hand.  That sounds like a good thing.

However, the journalistic position has been that, because the children who watched Sponge Bob performed poorly on a set of tasks that are very different from making sense of a fast-paced TV show, then such TV shows must be bad for the brain.

I understand that it makes better headlines, but be careful of this journalistic interpretation.   It is a leap to suggest that temporarily changing the brain's state, to one less equipped at particular cognitive task, is automatically bad.  Especially if the brain has assumed a new state more relevant to the immediate challenge.

Consider this.  What if the researchers repeated this experiment but, rather than testing the 4 year olds on their ability to sustain focus, they tested them on their ability to multi-task?  What if the results showed that the "Sponge Bob group" outperformed the others?  Would we then see tantalizing headlines about how cartoons help kids' brains?


  1. I would have loved to see this study includ a 4th group that involved students in some type of physical activity/exercise for the 9 minutes.

  2. Excellent point. Though I expect funding and participant pools limit the scope of many studies. Ideally, there perhaps should have been 2 physical activity groups; one to coincide with multi-tasking (though I'm not sure what the four year old version of basketball would be) and one just physical activity (the 4 year old equivalent of weight lifting?). Then, of course, they should have also tested for multi-task related cognition.

  3. There are so many variable with a study like this: age of those 4-year-olds [every month makes a difference at this age - where they evenly distributed among the groups, like older one & younger ones), or what is their activity level to start with, or what is their learning style]. I think the conclusion is going to be that both activities are needed with children. There are so many different ways for children to glean knowledge so we need to incorporate many different styles of learning.

  4. Entertainment programs makes us lazy too.

  5. Entertainment programs are best to reduce the worries of brain.

  6. Those kinds of studies help us to understand more our physical working .

  7. While interesting, a study with such a small subject group does not seem sufficient to provide valid, evidence based results.

  8. Anonymus has summed it up exactly - these results are "interesting" but hardly conclusive.

  9. Its a really lame series, I think its bad not only for the brain but for the entire body, each episode is worst than the one before.