THE BLOG
09/15/2011 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2011

Spongebob Squarepants vs. Caillou : Both of These Things Are Not LIke the Other

News sources can't resist an inflammatory headline about the ills of exposing children to media. Academics, increasingly in an environment where "publish or perish" isn't enough: you have to publish and publicize, are all too willing to oblige. This week, the perpetrator has been an innocent and entertaining yellow sponge, condemned for being exactly what his creators intended: fast-paced, wacky, and written for primary-school children (and adults). Blaming the creators of "Spongebob Squarepants" for not educating preschoolers is like blaming Aaron Sorkin for not penning "Blue's Clues."

Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia have authored a flawed and confused study. An accompanying commentary by Dmitri Christakis of the University of Washington attempts to pump up its significance.

Lillard and Peterson showed incomplete episodes (9 minutes from 11-minute stories) of either "Spongebob" or the Canadian animated series "Caillou" to 4-year-olds; a third group spent the same time drawing. There were just 20 children in each group. All of the children then took recognized tests of executive function -- those processes involved in planning and organizing one's self that are key to learning readiness. The children who watched "Spongebob" performed more poorly than those who saw "Caillou" and those who drew.

Sixty children is a tiny sample, acknowledged by the authors as too small and non-diverse to extrapolate effects to a broad population. Moreover, the study looked only at short-term effect, and the authors admit in their discussion that they cannot predict if the gap was more than momentary. Still, the study has been magnified to produce deceptive headlines like "Nickelodeon vs. PBS: New Study Finds Sponge Bob Affects School Readiness." Nickelodeon and PBS are channels, each offering a full schedule of programs diverse in pace, style and goals, beyond the two in question.

A transitory effect may merit further study, but it's hardly enough to suggest to anxious parents that they're damaging their children's learning. One of the lead researchers helpfully gives the advice that "I would say parents shouldn't be letting their kids watch these shows in the van on the way to school," a very different message from the dire warnings in the coverage.

Most important, this study forgets that television programs are unique creative efforts, and can't be interchanged like Legos. Making "Spongebob" slower paced will not make it "Caillou." In fact, the two programs differ in almost every dimension except that both are animated. International children and media researcher Maya Götz found "Caillou" to be among the best designed educational programs for its 3 to 5-year-old audience; its pace, artistic style, writing, characters and relationships, and story structure are laser-focused on particular learning objectives. "Spongebob" is brilliant off-the-wall humor; its pace, artistic style, writing, characters, relationships and story structure are more light-show than laser -- and it's meant for older kids.

The goal of good research is to compare things that differ only by a single variable. The researchers say in the study that they cannot identify what elements of "Spongebob" were salient, but speculated in an interview that "the random and unpredictable nature of the cartoon was more likely to 'disrupt the ability to focus rather than strengthen it.'" "Random and unpredictable" are attributes of the storytelling, not the pace, and there's no news in the idea that coherent and linear stories are more comprehensible to 4-year-olds.

Showing the children incomplete stories surely doesn't help. The researchers speculate that longer exposure might increase the negative effect. However, it seems equally possible that offering children an incomplete story adds to the disruption -- like hearing a piece of music that never resolves.

Christakis' supporting editorial only muddies the waters. He starts by saying "the typical child began watching television at 4 years of age in 1970 and consumed 3 to 4 hours/day." While industry and academic attention to preschool TV habits grew in the wake of "Sesame Street," there are notations in research well before 1970 of toddlers asking for favorite programs by age two. It's important, too, that in the pre-cable universe of 1970, 3 to 4 hours of TV was very different from that amount today, if we stipulate that content matters (on this, Christakis and I agree). There simply wasn't that much children's programming then (and certainly less educational content), so a child watching several hours daily saw much that was not age-appropriate (analogous to, say, watching "Sponge Bob" when you're 4, today).

To make the case that even transient effects on executive function are significant, Christakis peppers his piece with examples of individual teenagers and college students. It's a big and blind leap to observe one interaction in a hospital or cafeteria and draw longitudinal conclusions to childhood media choices.

Almost all of today's preschool television is heavily researched for age-appropriate content and presentation. The more parents know about the amount of care that goes into educational TV, yet is invisible to the eye, the better they can choose the right role for TV in their household, and the right programs for their particular child. Parents should seek a trusted media review site that can guide them to particular titles that are right for their children's unique needs and abilities and interests.

I've written here before about the need for parents and journalists to brush up their research literacy -- to spot hallmarks of good or weak study design. In this case, a minimal study has dominated a news cycle, and been exploded in the press to "bolster the idea that media exposure is a public health issue."

There are many questions about the appropriate role of media in children's early years, and people on all sides of the discussion willing to prey on parental guilt to further their argument that media are either indispensable or injurious. It's impossible to conduct a thoughtful debate, or to build family media literacy, if we allow the conversation to be hijacked by pseudo-science that lends itself to flashy headlines.