Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In Defense of Spongebob

Or - A Big, Steaming Squarepantsload

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 filling out an IRS 1040 Long Form quietly coloring with crayons.

Group 2
spent 9 minutes watching brown spots form on a banana "Caillou." (For those of you unfamiliar with the show, "Caillou" is a children's program that is so sedate...that within nine minutes it would have Mr. Rogers tugging at his eyebrow while chewing the elbow patch off his cardigan.)

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.


Cheryl said...

I wonder what the results would be if there was a Group 5: 9 minutes of Barney. It takes me about 2 minutes to fall into a deep and restful sleep when I watch. Best sedative around.

(Making cardboard sleds & zipping down the big-ass hill for 9 minutes was the best.)

hokgardner said...

A to the men.

I like to sit and watch tv with my kids, when we do watch it. And I'd far rather watch SpongeBob than Caillou. Heck, even my kids don't want to watch Caillou.

Erik Deckers said...

I'd love for researchers to check out the mental damage watching Caillou does. I tried letting my kids watch that whiny French-Canadian brat when they were young and every episode was about him throwing a tantrum and getting his way.

They (and I) watched about a week of it and I declared that he was verboten in our house from then on, because "I don't want you kids to learn that whining and fussing is acceptable."

Pretty soon, whenever my kids saw a whiny kid in a store or restaurant, one of them would say, "that boy is whiny like Caillou."

I guess he DID teach them something.

Ann Imig said...

I love this post Anna. And this made me cackle

[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?]

I wish you had taught my research class in social work school. THESE are the kinds of questions critical thinkers ask themselves while reading a study.

Yunk Yunk Yunk,

April said...

I loathe Spongebob, but I think I loathe this study even more. Thanks for pointing out that children's entertainment is just that: entertainment.

Anonymous said...

"Salem sponge trials" cracked me up! I'd like someone to study people who do studies. Were they really shocked by these results or were they TRYING to get these results. Hatin' on Spongebob is just childish.

Florinda said...

I can only handle the Sponge in small doses myself, but I think it's good that you stepped up to his defense.

Nicole Pelton said...

Spongebob is aways happy, he just never complains. And he's smart my son just explained, you actually have to pay to work at the Krusty Krab, so Spongebob just refuses his paycheck :) The books, though, horrible and creepy - I secretly give them away at night.

Fireblossom said...

Oh! Wise guy, eh? Why I oughta...


Alexandra said...

Oh, yes, the WONDERFULNESS of Caillou.

The nasty little bald headed boy that the parents think is the fifteenth dalai lama so they dress him in the high priest outfit.

Hated that show. Had my druthers about it to begin with and the day my then 5 year old child turned to me while watching an episode where Caillou was particularly venomous to his little sister, Rosie-- and said," I didn't know you could hate your sister," I flipped it off, never to return.

SpongeBob hates no one.

SpongeBob loves everybody: even turns the other cheek (see Squidward).

SpongeBob isn't evil and demonic.

Alexandra said...

Now that that's off my chest, I lurrrrved this part:

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.

Alexandra said...

My 14 yr old read this and loved it. He says, "Can't kids just have fun anymore? Does it have to be a lesson in the end?"

There you have it.

Alison said...

Thank you for sticking up for Spongebob! I personally love the show, and it's become my 2 year old daughter's favorite. My kids won't watch Caillou because he sucks. They would rather have the TV off. And it's the old cartoons like Tom and Jerry you have to watch out for. I learned this the hard way after my son started copying everything Tom & Jerry did, and ended up knocking my father unconscious. Yeah, it was bad. So Spongebob it is in our house.


Kids go to school ALL DAY.

Kids do homework, dinner, and bath.

SPONGEBOB is the Treat of the Day!!

I watch it clutching a glass of wine and thanking God for whoever invented this delicious cartoon/escape.

HermanTurnip said...

"The Three Stooges (starring the Three Stooges, duh)"

Was this the Stooges with or without Curly? Because without Curly, the power of the three are greatly diminished...

When Pigs Fly said...

Totally agree with you on this. What would have happened to us if we hadn't had Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner? There were some important nuggets of humor that brought us to where we are today as infinitely funny bloggers. Laughter is highly underrated. Kids have the rest of their lives to be too serious.

MommyTime said...

Although I really hate Spongebob, I really love your point here. I don't hate him because he is likely to decrease the focus and control of my children, but just because I find him unbearably annoying, so annoying that I feel stabby when I watch him. But the fact that TV is supposed to be an escape and way to rot a few brain cells does seem grossly overlooked by this study.