Breaking news from 1999: Scientists have discovered that SpongeBob SquarePants — a well-dressed undersea schizophrenic who works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab — is bad for your children. So say a group of well-trained researchers at the University of Virginia, who published their findings in the journal Pediatrics. The study measured “executive function” — the ability to stay on one task without being distracted — in preschool-aged children.
The study divided the kids into three groups. One group watched a nine-minute clip of SpongeBob SquarePants; one group watched a nine-minute clip of Caillou, a show that is the polar opposite of SpongeBob in every way (slow-moving, airs on PBS, made in Canada); and one group spent nine minutes drawing pictures. In tests conducted afterwards, the latter two groups had equally fine “executive function.” The SpongeBob group’s performance was notably worse. So now we have scientific proof: Watching PBS is exactly as much fun as not watching television.
I kid, I kid. Still, it’s a little too easy to poke holes in the study, which was discussed on this morning’s Today show. The researchers claim that watching a full half-hour of a “fast-paced cartoon show” could be detrimental to kids’ ability to focus. But you could just as easily argue that the sheer breakneck insanity of SpongeBob teaches children a far more important lesson: The ability to multi-task. Slow-moving shows like Caillou or the Antonioni-esque Teletubbies allow kids to relax, but they also seem to me to be perpetuating an extremely well-intentioned lie: They implicitly teach children that they have entered a world of Edenic simplicity, when in fact life in the modern age requires the ability to juggle at least two distinct planes of reality (digital and analog) at all times.
Really, you could argue that a monolothic, myopic focus on one single thing is a less important skill than it seems to be. A recent psychological study concluded that surfing the Web can actually improve work performance. Meandering through Wikipedia, watching funny cat videos, or reading your favorite snappy pop culture websites keep your brain cells firing on all cylinders. In times gone by, you would have just gotten bored. (Hey, there’s a reason people drank more during business hours back in the ’60s.) You could argue that modern life is all about attempting to stay sane and keep your head about you in the midst of echo-chamber insanity. So who would you rather have at your back: Someone who spent their preschool years learning to keep up with SpongeBob, or someone who spent their preschool years napping through Caillou?
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