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Is SpongeBob Really Bad for Preschoolers?

Study raps fast-paced cartoon for impeding toddler learning

Writer: Caroline Miller

Clinical Expert: Susan J. Schwartz, MAEd

Is it credible that watching a particular show, like the often-blamed hyperactive cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants—could have a negative effect on preschoolers? It’s a question that worries many parents and even became the subject of a 2011 study in Pediatrics. The lead author of that study was suggesting that fast-paced programs featuring unrealistic scenarios may over-stimulate the brain, making it harder to trigger executive function skills. “Not all TV is the same,” said another researcher at the University of Washington, who reviewed the study. “These children’s brains were actually tired from all of the stimulation.”

Susan Schwartz, a learning and educational specialist, doesn’t think pace is the issue when it comes to what’s developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. “The important thing,” she said, “is seeing real-life scenarios being played out, whether it’s on the playground or on TV or in the kitchen corner at school or with blocks as symbols of real life.”

Preschool age children are modeling what they see, so characters that interact the way real people do, whether they’re cartoons or live-action, can contribute to their development, she adds.

But parents agonizing over which kind of video is best for toddlers may be getting anxious about the wrong thing. The study claimed that four-year-olds who watched 9 minutes of SpongeBob performed worse on executive function tests than peers who watched 9 minutes of Caillou, a slower-paced, more realistic PBS cartoon about a preschool-aged boy, and a peer group that spent 9 minutes drawing. “I wouldn’t advise watching such shows on the way to school or any time they’re expected to pay attention and learn,” the lead author of the study told the AP.

Excuse me, but the takeaway here should be that preschoolers—and older kids as well—shouldn’t be plugged into video of any kind on the way to school. And does it need to be said that kids shouldn’t be watching anything while they’re supposed to be doing homework?

Schwartz notes that practically any other form of play—playing outside, drawing or painting, playing dress-up, building things, playing with pots and pans while mom or dad make dinner—is more likely to stimulate and socialize young children, because they are acting and thinking, touching and feeling and manipulating things, experimenting, drawing conclusions, observing cause and effect.

And you can add to the list talking to parents in the car on the way to school.

By the way, in case you think kids who are driven to school are the only ones at risk of being plopped in front of a video screen, one morning last spring, on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, I saw a mom briskly pushing a preschooler in a stroller that had a video screen mounted in the child’s line of sight. And of course mom was on the phone.

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 4, 2023.