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Revisiting the Spongebob parent controversy

Art by Morgan Eun

On the social media platform TikTok, a video surfaced that read “I could never stand a ‘my mom doesn’t let me watch Spongebob’ kid.” While the majority of viewers agreed, there was a small handful who stood by their parent’s decision. They argued that Spongebob decreased the intelligence of its audience. Some swore that it increased impulsivity and was a bad influence. Many commenters laughed it off and poked fun at those whose parents were simply “lame”. After all, could there have been something bad about such an iconic cartoon? Why did it repel parents?

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On September 12th, 2011, Dr. Angeline S. Lilliard posted an article titled “The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function” under the NIH (National Institutes of Health). The objective of the study was to investigate the impacts of fast-paced cartoons on the executive brain function of young children (aged four). The study found that the attention span, ability to problem solve, and behavior of these four-year-old children would worsen within just 9 minutes of such television exposure.

This riled the internet. After Dr. Lilliard’s study, hundreds of articles and blogs were being uploaded from parents’ testimonies to the reassurance or disapproval from fellow psychologists.

One mom recalled the imitative behavior their kids would present after watching the show. “‘SpongeBob, will you [cut that out/keep it down/stop crying/be quiet]!?!’ And, like every other time, SpongeBob and Patrick did not cut it out but continued whatever they were doing to annoy Squidward, only sillier and louder… O ... M ... G. My boys are Spongebob and Patrick… the boys get silly and loud, I get upset and ask them to stop, their behavior escalates,” Prickly mom wrote in a blog post. Other parents also recount aggressive behavior. Parent Julia Burton stated her reasons for banning Spongebob were to her daughter Kate (age 3) angrily calling her stupid with absolutely no context. When asking Kate where she had heard this word from, she instantly referred to Spongebob.

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After an entire study denouncing the show and multiple testimonies of child aggression from parents, Spongebob seemed malicious. But further research prevails that it probably shouldn’t be as concerning as parents made it out to be.

Image via Fanpop
Hyperactivity in the brain and Dr. Lilliard’s study

Hyperactivity is the result of norepinephrine lack, a neurotransmitter that works alongside dopamine and serotonin for neurological stability. This primarily impairs the Frontal Cortex which is responsible for memory, attention, organization, and other executive functions. The most common condition linked with hyperactivity is ADHD, though it does not always imply it is present.

Dr. Lilliard’s original study is limited. There were only 60 test subjects, all being the same age of four, below the recommended age for Spongebob viewers.

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Age demographics the cartoon was ACTUALLY for

Spongebob is intended for children over the age of 6. Many of the research and studies done on fast-paced cartoons observed preschool-equivalent participants. A further-developed healthy child’s brain will be able to watch such cartoons for longer periods of time without signs of hyperactivity.

Image via Animo Apps

So were the “Karens” overexaggerating this time?

Spongebob is definitely not the most educational cartoon, but it doesn’t atrophy the child’s mind either. Should a kid below the age of 6 be watching Spongebob? It’s not recommended. Would it be okay for a child over the age of 6 to watch Spongebob with preset screen time? Yes, Moderation is key.

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