Thursday, September 15, 2011

Culture Shock 09.15.11: Don't be too quick to blame 'SpongeBob'

Someone needs to study whether or not stupid studies are detrimental to the nation's mental health.

They're driving me crazy.

The latest example, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, says fast-paced TV programs could be harmful to preschool-age children.

Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. None of the studies claiming that TV is detrimental to children are all that persuasive. That applies especially to studies claiming to link television viewing and violence, even as violent crime rates have declined for most of the past 30 years. But one thing about this new study is clear: It offers no valuable evidence one way or the other.

Here's how the study worked. One group of 4-year-olds watched nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants." That was the fast-paced show. Another group of preschoolers watched nine minutes of a slower-paced PBS cartoon called "Caillou." Immediately afterward, all of the kids were given mental function tests, and the ones who watched "SpongeBob" scored lower and displayed less impulse control.

That led the study's authors to speculate that fast-paced cartoons are bad. Mmkay? (Tell that to everyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.)

I drew a different conclusion.

I suspect that when kids watch nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" and then are yanked away to take some boring old test, all those kids can think about is how much they'd rather still be watching "SpongeBob." What else would you expect? "SpongeBob" is one of the most popular kiddie-TV programs ever and, for the past decade, one of the most popular shows on cable.

Meanwhile, the kids forced to watch nine minutes of "Caillou" may have been somewhat less traumatized by no longer watching "Caillou," even if that meant taking a test.

After watching a seven-minute clip of "Caillou" I found on YouTube, I wanted to do something that was not watching "Caillou." I also realized why some parents online complain that the show's title character is an annoying brat.

Also, I never want to have children.

Even if the study's findings are valid, they apply only to the short term. Why not test the kids an hour or two after they watch "SpongeBob" and see how they perform then? Obviously that's too much like a real-world situation and makes too much sense. Besides, if the study's authors did that first, they might not have any need to include the usual disclaimer about how more study is needed.

It's a lot easier to get grant money for your next study if the first study's main finding is something may be a problem and its secondary finding is more study is necessary. Finding that something isn't a problem or that more study isn't needed is bad for business.

Despite my cynicism about this particular study, I actually do think our generally faster-paced culture — including movies and TV — may be rewiring our brains, adapting us to life's quickening pace and all of the information coming at us from every direction. I also suspect this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it may help us with things like multitasking. But if that's the case, then the way we test children's mental abilities must adapt, too.

Kids aren't getting dumber, and steady increases in IQ — the Flynn effect — back that up. But children  may be thinking differently, and our tests aren't accounting for that, which might partially explain why test scores have remained flat despite rising IQs and greater per-pupil spending than ever.

Or I could be wrong. Maybe more study is needed.

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