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Watching SpongeBob Squarepants, Fast-Paced Fantasy May Impede Kids’ Learning

Watching fast-paced, fantasy television programs like SpongeBob Squarepants may impede children’s learning by compromising their “executive function”, or their ability to pay attention, problem-solve and control their behavior, according to new research soon to be published in the October issue of Pediatrics.

Executive function is a concept that psychologists and neuroscientists use to describe a set of brain processes that helps people connect experience to action, and includes skills such as planning, organizing, paying attention, remembering details, and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.

Executive function helps us in many ways in our day to day lives, whether at school, at work, at home or in social settings. For instance it helps us make plans, keep track of activity and finish on time, “multi-task”, reflect on what we try to accomplish and evaluate it, correct ourselves as we go along, take part in group and written discussions using past knowledge meaningfully, and modify our behavior according to social norms (for instance wait for our turn, not interrupt, show respect).

In a randomized, controlled study, psychologists from the University of Virginia in the US tested 4-year-olds just after they watched nine minutes of television shows or sat drawing for nine minutes. The children watched two types of show: SpongeBob Squarepants a fast-paced cartoon fantasy show, and Caillou, a slower-paced, more realistic public television educational cartoon about a pre-school boy.

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