When I was growing up in Houston, the two local television stations ran children's programming in the weekday hours before school started.
Five days a week, I would get dressed, brush my teeth, then plop on our Early American sofa and stare at the black-and-white television on its metal cart until it was time to jump into my mom's Delta '88 and burn rubber to school.
My viewing choices during that time slot were practically infinite, as evidenced by the following exhaustive list:
* Batman (starring Adam West)
* The Three Stooges (starring the Three Stooges, duh)
Faced with this dizzying array of options, I opted for the Three Stooges every morning. That is, until my mom became concerned about the violence and generally disrespectful nature of the stooges' hi-jinks.
So she made a rule: I could only watch "The Three Stooges" every other day. In that way, she effectively reduced by a solid 50% my chances of being suspended from school for clamping someone's nose with pliers in wood shop or excessive nyuk-nyuk-nyuking in social studies.
[To this day, whenever I happen to see a Three Stooges clip, I immediately think, Wait - did I watch this yesterday? Am I allowed to see it today?]
All of which is to say that although I absorbed 3.2 gazillion hours of children's TV shows that didn't even pretend to communicate quantitative learning skills or encourage young viewers to max out their attention spans (don't even get me started on "The Banana Splits"), I have managed to obtain an education and hold down a few respectable jobs over the years.
I'm also proud to report that it has been at least six weeks since my last seltzer-bottle fight.
The Spongebob Experiment
So when I saw the trending topic "Spongebob Study" on Yahoo!, I had an inkling where it was headed.
And I was right: it was the Salem sponge trials all over again.
You can read the details of the study here, but in a nutshell, it goes something like this:
Researchers recently had three groups of 4-year-olds each perform a different task as follows:
Group 1 spent 9 minutes
Group 2 spent 9 minutes watching
Group 3 spent 9 minutes watching "Spongebob Squarepants."
Now, guess which group performed worst in immediate follow-up tests designed to measure focus and self-control - the children who colored or watched the slower-paced cartoon...OR...the children who watched the "frenetic" undersea adventures of the pants-wearing sponge?
Is It Me? (<---rhetorical question, btw)
Forgive me for asking what might be a stupid question, but since when is increasing focus and self-control the goal of kids' shows? I'm sorry, but I was always under the impression that the purpose of children's programming was to make kids laugh until they blew grape juice out of their noses.*
[*Note: I'm intentionally overlooking the time-honored tradition of hateful, heart-wrenching children's programs about lost puppies and the like, such as a horrific movie called "Clown" that was shown to us in third grade and which SCARRED ME TO THIS DAY.]
Anyway, my understanding was always that there was another home-based tool at parents' disposal that was shown to be quite effective in increasing focus and self-control. It was called CHORES.
Television, on the other hand, was the "fun" thing you got to do when you weren't supposed to be doing something useful like making your bed or tidying up outside by flipping all the dog doodie over the fence with a rake into the yard of the vacant house next door.
I'm No Scientist, But...
Setting aside the structure of this study which pits a brilliantly subversive kids' show against two other activities that, while they have their place, are total snoozes...
I have to wonder what the results of the experiment would have been if there had been a Group 4 that spent 9 minutes, say, being chased around the block by an older sibling with a beach towel tied around his or her shoulders, wielding a Super Soaker and screaming gibberish.
Or maybe a Group 5 that swiped their parents' satin bedspread, wrapped themselves in it and bobsledded down the stairs and across the front hall 23 times in 9 minutes.
If these two groups performed poorly on the above follow-up tests (and, compared to the sedative effect of the coloring/"Caillou" combination, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that they likely would), would we conclude that these activities had no value or were somehow detrimental to the children's development?
What about the value of laughing until you clutch your sides, eyes welling with involuntary tears, tongue hanging out, gasping for breath?
To quote a credit card company's popular advertising tag line, I would value this effect as "priceless."
Now, before you turn on that TV, take this rake and get out in the backyard. That doodie's not going to flip itself over the fence.