A recent study found that 4 year olds who watched nine minutes of Sponge Bob Squarepants cartoons showed less self control, a reduced ability to delay gratification, and poorer working memory skills than their peers who had engaged in “calmer” activities. Needless to say, the findings caused quite a stir.

The children viewing Sponge Bob may have done poorly because they were overloaded by the mental demands of keeping track of a fast-paced, video with unfamiliar information.

Executive functions are those thought processes that are responsible for organization, memory, paying attention, and planning. They develop primarily during childhood and adolescence and each developmental stage from toddlers and preschoolers on up through young adulthood have specific patterns of strengths and challenges.

Questioning parents and teachers about a child’s behavior, observing children, and standardized testing are the primary means by which executive functions are assessed. When a child or adult has weaker executive functions than her same aged peers, she is said to have a deficit. And she may have difficulty managing the challenges of school and work, social groups and family relationships, and attaining personal goals.

The researchers divided 60 preschoolers into three groups and had them watch Sponge Bob, a rapid and fantastical cartoon, or watch a slower paced educational program or color with markers and crayons for nine minutes. They then administered standardized tests of executive function to determine the immediate impact of the children’s previous nine minutes of activity.

The three groups of children were similar in their media viewing habits and their attentional abilities prior to the study. They were quite different immediately following the study activity. The children who saw the fast-paced television did significantly worse on the executive function assessment test than the drawing group. Those who watched educational television tested similarly to those who drew.

The researchers suggest that the children viewing Sponge Bob may have done poorly because they were overloaded by the mental demands of keeping track of a fast-paced, video with unfamiliar information. The Sponge Bob scene changed every 11 seconds whereas the educational video scene changed 1/3 as often and had much less movement within each scene.

It may be that when the brain has to process too much rapid new material, it may, at least temporarily, deplete its resources for other executive functions. The researchers note that, “Whereas familiar events are encoded by established neural circuits, there is no such circuitry for new and unexpected events, which fantastical events often are.”

The researchers proposed that the degree of executive impairment from fast paced cartoons may be underestimated by this study, since most children’s viewing time is much longer than 9 minutes. But they noted that only 4 year olds were tested and it is possible that older children’s brains are less impacted and more able to handle the input overload. They further note that they only tested immediate, not long term impact on executive function and state that there is much more research to be done.

Nonetheless, the study clearly showed that in the four year old age group, a short viewing of a fast paced fantastical cartoon caused immediate deficits in certain executive functions and this is worth heeding in the larger context of children and media. Parents may want to reassess their children’s screen habits with respect to both viewing time and content with an eye to not overloading or over-stimulating their children.

It is important, too, to recognize that parents' expectations of their child's ability to pay attention, make decisions, persist on tasks, and delay gratification must be age and developmentally appropriate. Factors such as fatigue, stress, hunger, and illness and temperament can impact executive functions. Parents may, at times, have to modify the demands they make on their children, simplify tasks, and help them achieve some goals in order to help a child cope with weaker – or weakened – executive skills.

A children’s health or mental health care provider can be a useful resource to help families recognize the difference between educating, facilitating, and enabling challenging behaviors in children and teens. Professional counseling can also help families change deeply entrenched screen/media use habits.