The latest kids' show to be called into question is Nickelodeon's long-running cartoon series, 'SpongeBob SquarePants.' According to The Wrap, a study due to be published online Monday by the journal 'Pediatrics' found that watching just nine minutes of 'SpongeBob' had a negative effect on four-year-olds' attention spans.
Nickelodeon questioned the validity of the findings, criticizing the small size of the control group and pointing to the fact that 'SpongeBob' is targeted at children aged six to eleven, not four.
The problems were seen in a study conducted using what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls a "controlled experimental design." University of Virginia researchers recruited 60 mostly white and middle- or upper-middle-class four-year-olds and randomly divided them into three groups.
One group watched 'SpongeBob' -- in which there were scene changes on average every 11 seconds -- one watched slower-paced PBS cartoon 'Caillou' -- in which there were scene changes on average every 34 seconds -- and one was assigned to draw pictures. The children took mental function tests immediately after these nine-minute assignments, and the 'SpongeBob' viewers did measurably worse than the others.
Prof. Angeline Lillard, who carried out the experiment, said researchers found "little difference" in behaviour and performance between the drawing group and the 'Caillou' group afterward. However, they found that the "executive function" -- the ability to pay attention, solve problems and moderate behaviour -- in those who'd watched 'SpongeBob' was "severely compromised."
She suggested: "It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child's ability to concentrate immediately afterward.
"Another possibility is that children identify with unfocused and frenetic characters, and then adopt their characteristics."
In a statement, Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler said "Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's targeted demo, watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust."
'SpongeBob' follows the adventures of a ten-year-old fry cook and his friends in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom. It's been Nickelodeon's top series among children aged two to eleven for ten years, and earlier this year the series was renewed for a 26-episode Season 9, which will air in 2012.
It's not the first time the show's been in hot water. In 2005 it came under fire from Christian Right group Focus on the Family, which said the cartoon's tolerance themes were really code for gay-agenda promotion. And last month Fox News personalities Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson slammed it for teaching children about man-made global warming.
Dr Dimitri Christakis, child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, said that although the recent results should be interpreted cautiously because of the study's small size, the data do seem robust and bolster the idea that media exposure is a public health issue.
"Put simply," he said, "television is both good and bad. ... The effects of media are more down to what is watched than how much is watched."