Ah, Pediatrics. You publish such ridiculous studies sometimes. We called you out for the flawed study on ‘Facebook depression’, a shoddy study which should have never made it past your reviewers without some serious work.
Now you’re in the news again for a study about SpongeBob SquarePants, the apparently evil cartoon that will turn 4-year-old’s minds into mush after just 9 minutes of viewing. While you also published a somewhat more balanced commentary article alongside the study, nobody seemed to notice it.
And why would they? This study was a siren call to over-generalize and suggest we have found one of the enemies attempting to influence our children. And he wears square pants.
The study itself is short and fairly direct (Lillard & Peterson, 2011). A group of 60 4-year-olds were randomly divided into one of three experimental groups. One group watched 9 minutes of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, another watched a slower-paced cartoon on PBS, and the third group sat drawing. (Why the experimenters didn’t allow the kids to watch the full 11-minute episode of the cartoons is left unexplained, but could’ve negatively or positively impacted the final results; we just don’t know.)
Then the children completed four tasks, three of which are designed to measure executive brain function — such as attention, working memory and problem solving — and one was a delayed gratification task.
Here’s what the researchers found:
The fast-paced television group did signiﬁcantly worse on the executive function composite than the drawing group.
The difference between the fast-paced and the educational television groups approached significance, and there was no difference between educational television and drawing. [emphasis added]
Compared to drawing, kids in the SpongeBob group did worse when the researchers measured these executive function areas — attention, working memory, and problem solving.
But compared to the kids who watched the other cartoon, there was no statistical difference between the two groups of kids. When a researcher says something “approached significance,” that’s a squishy research term to say, “Well, it’s not significant, but it’s darned close.”
Unfortunately, in research, “darned close” doesn’t count. Either something’s significant or it’s not. And even if something is “approaching” statistical significance, that may not mean anything in real life. Statistical significance doesn’t always directly translate into actual deficits in a person — something the kid or anybody else would even notice or affect their actual real-world efforts.
Figure 1 in the study says it all:
It’s not just that SpongeBob impacts kids’ attention and memory abilities immediately after watching the show — apparently so does watching the other cartoon. Only drawing helps a kid with these executive function skills.
But this is glossed over in what the researchers choose to focus on in their discussion section. In fact, they contradict their statement that I quoted above:
Children in the fast-paced television group scored significantly worse than the others despite being equal in attention at the outset, as indicated by parent report.
No, they didn’t. According to your data, the children in the fast-paced television group did worse — but not significantly so — than the children watching the slower-paced cartoon.
The limitations of the study weren’t even mentioned in most media reports I’ve read. They include the small number of subjects studied, and limitations the researchers did note: “only 4-year-olds were tested; older children might not be negatively inﬂuenced by fast-paced television. [… We also] do not know how long the negative effects persist or what the long-term effects of habitual viewing include.”
Indeed. If the effects wear off in 30 minutes, it would hardly represent any cause for concern — much less national news media attention. It would be the same as noting people’s pulse rates, distractibility and jumpiness seem to rise immediately after watching 9 minutes of a horror movie. But then they settle down as soon as a person gets reoriented toward the environment around them.
I am just splitting hairs? Perhaps. But it’s also important to note when researchers don’t quite tell the whole truth in their own studies, and how publishers, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, don’t seem to much care.
Lillard, A.S. & Peterson, J. (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function. Pediatrics. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919