How Can Parents Navigate Children's TV Shows?

Michele Norris speaks with Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, about how parents can navigate the world of children's TV programs. A new study done at the University of Virginia with a group of 4 year olds found those who'd watched the fast-paced cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants performed worse on mental function tests than their peers who watched the slower-paced cartoon Calliou or who simply spent their time drawing. Christakis says young children's brains get over-stimulated by the faster-paced programs — and urges parents to think about what kind of television-watching experience they want their children to have.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: Now back to an earlier stage of childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS")

TOM KENNY: (as SpongeBob) Nice work, buddy. Now my house can withstand anything nature has to throw at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

BILL FAGERBAKKE: (as Patrick) I guess Squidward is not part of nature.

KENNY: (as SpongeBob) Squidward...

NORRIS: "SpongeBob SquarePants" has been under fire this week, and not from his cranky neighbor, Squidward. A new study found that four-year-olds who watched just nine minutes of that cartoon performed worse on mental function tests, compared to children who either watched the PBS cartoon "Caillou," an educational show, or kids who spent their time drawing.

The study was published this week in the journal Pediatrics. Its lead author says "SpongeBob" specifically isn't the problem, rather it's the fast pace of some children's programming.

And that got us wondering. What TV show should parents be avoiding and what should they be seeking out for young kids?

Joining us now is Dr. Dimitri Christakis. He's the director of the Center for Child Health Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital. He's also the author of "The Elephant In The Living Room: Make Television Work For Your Kids." Welcome to the program.

Dr. DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: Pleasure to be here.

NORRIS: Now, first of all, you have seen this study in Pediatrics. What did you make of it?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, it's interesting. You know, it was a small study. It had only 60 children. But one of its strengths was that it actually was an experiment, so the children that you described were actually randomly assigned to those three groups. And then, immediately afterwards, they had their executive function tested. Your listeners can think of that as a child's ability to stay on task, to focus his or her attention on something. And that's obviously critical for school performance.

And, in fact, the children who watched the fast-paced program, "SpongeBob," did perform significantly worse.

NORRIS: So why would a fast-paced program have a negative effect on a child's executive functions?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, I think one way of thinking about it is our brains evolved over millennia to process events that happen in the real world. And events that happen in the real world take place in real time. But there are many, many ways in which media of all types speed up events. And while our brains are able to actually process those events, right, we can watch "SpongeBob" and follow the narrative, it's potentially at least overstimulating. It's taxing our minds and that could lead to short-term deficits, as seen in this study, and at least potentially to long-erm deficits as has been seen in other studies.

NORRIS: You know, help us understand something, particularly when we talk about overstimulation - and to illustrate the point, we're going to do a little listening exercise. Let's listen first to a clip from a show called "Blue's Clues," that's a Nickelodeon show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "BLUE'S CLUES")

DONOVAN PATTON: (as Joe) What do you think Blue saw with sticks and a tree? Oh. Maybe, maybe we should find our last clue to figure this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "MAIL TIME" FROM "BLUE'S CLUES")

NORRIS: Mail time, a regular feature on that show. And for comparison, let's listen again to "Spongebob."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS")

KENNY: (as Spongebob) Now my house can withstand anything nature has to throw at us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

FAGERBAKKE: (as Patrick) I guess Squidward's not part of nature.

KENNY: (as Spongebob) Squidward. Did you come to weather out the storm with us?

ROGER BUMPASS: (as Squidward) No. I - what storm?

NORRIS: Okay. So help us understand the difference between those two clips. What do you notice?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, first of all, this is radio, so we're only getting half the story. You're only hearing the audio. The video that goes with these is also very, very different because in the first case, you have a continuous segment and there's actually pauses built in. There's an opportunity for the child to actually talk back to the television. And in the second case, you have very, very rapid scene changes, which goes along with the audio where you're hearing many, many different voices.

Now, in some respects this comparison is a little bit unfair because we're comparing a well-designed educational program to a program that's intended purely for entertainment purposes.

NORRIS: So in defense of the little man who lives in a pineapple under the sea, Spongebob is actually targeted to elementary school-age children, not 4-year-olds, the kids who were actually in this study. And in some ways, therein lays the problem. How do you judge what's appropriate for children at a given age?

CHRISTAKIS: Well, it's a very good question. I should point out that in spite of the fact that "Spongebob" - we are told - is intended for children at school age, it remains the most popular cartoon for children in the preschool age group. I think the important thing for parents to think about is what is their goal for television or other medium? What do they want their children to get from it? Do they want them to improve their recognition of letters, of numbers? Do they want to expose them to new horizons, to new experiences? Do they want them to be entertained? All of those things can be done by television and there's nothing wrong with any of them. And how you use the medium determines which of those things it does.

NORRIS: Dr. Christakis, thank you very much for your time.

CHRISTAKIS: It was my pleasure.

NORRIS: That's Dr. Dimitri Christakis. He's the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital.

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