Ah yes, Spongebob Squarepants, the invertebrate who lives in a pineapple under the sea, has been making waves as of late. If only Joseph Campbell were around, he would immediately intuit that Spongebob was a Sponge with a thousand faces.
I have watched Spongebob Squarepants ever since it first aired on Nickelodeon in 1999, and still catch episodes when I can on Netflix, snatching twelve or so minutes to wolf down cereal while I snort soymilk out of my nose from Bob’s ridiculous-ness. That may be a bit of hyperbole, but frankly, the show is pure genius; one that is able to deftly straddle diverse demographics, bringing children, teens and adults together, all to watch the antics of a spineless fry cook sponge and his idiotic starfish bestie, Patrick. It also carries the distinction of being one of the only ’90s cartoons still running, and that is saying something. I own a few seasons, and have always enjoyed the show’s quick pace, the insane animation, the plots involving his terrible driving at Boating School, his job working as a fry cook for miserly Eugene Krabs at the fast food restaurant the Krusty Krab, his wacky friends like Sandy Cheeks (HA!) and Patrick Star, and his cranky neighbor Squidward Tentacles. The names are a hoot, the stories downright crazy. Which is also why I do not understand all the fuss about the supposed effects the show has on 4-year-olds.
The show is very clearly aimed at older kids, and is definitely relatable to teens and young adults, as Spongebob has a job:
Drives a car:
Owns a pet:
And goes to conventions to share his love of his favorite hobby, Jellyfishing:
Despite these milestones of adulthood, he is still relegated to a kid’s cartoon, and thus treated with the odd reverence and scrutiny that comes with being a show aimed at our youth. Shows like Sesame Street, Teletubbies, the Wiggles, and Dora the Explorer are all lumped in with Spongebob, and that is just plain wrong. No wonder the show has had a few “controversies” over the past few years.
Most notably was the insane notion that Spongebob, much like Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies, was gay. Admittedly, there are some similarities between the two shows: they are aimed at children, they are quite popular and have a huge following, they both occasionally break the fourth wall, and at times they both border on the psychedelic. But when Jerry Falwell, a conservative American cleric claimed that Tinky was a gay role model for kids, basing it only on Tinky’s purple coloration, his handbag, and the fact that his antennae was in the shape of a triangle. However, the BBC, the show’s co-producers, went on record stating that Tinky was not gay, or straight, simply a character on a children’s television show.
Something eerily similar happened in 2005 to Spongebob Squarepants, another children’s show character. James Dobson from the evangelical group Focus on the Family accused the yellow invertebrate of promoting homosexuality when he saw the character singing together with others in a promotional video. The creator, Stephen Hillenburg, went on record to dispute this, stating that Spongebob is not gay or straight, rather he considers him to be asexual. Dobson later attempted to backtrack, saying his comments were taken out of context, that his issue wasn’t with Spongebob directly but rather the organization which sponsored the video, which itself was meant to promote diversity and tolerance. Something nice did come out of it all, however, when John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ said Spongebob would be welcome in their ministry, after all, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” That is all well and good, but everyone does realize that Spongebob Squarepants is just a cartoon character, right?
And then we come to this latest bit of insanity, all over the internet from the AP to Wired: in May 2011 a study was published in Pediatrics, the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in which scientists examined the effects of watching Spongebob in 4-year-olds.
According to the study’s own abstract:
Objective: The goal of this research was to study whether a fast-paced television show immediately influences preschool-aged children’s executive function (eg, self-regulation, working memory).
Methods: Sixty 4-year-olds were randomly assigned to watch a fast-paced television cartoon or an educational cartoon or draw for 9 minutes. They were then given 4 tasks tapping executive function, including the classic delay-of-gratification and Tower of Hanoi tasks. Parents completed surveys regarding television viewing and child’s attention.
Results: Children who watched the fast-paced television cartoon performed significantly worse on the executive function tasks than children in the other 2 groups when controlling for child attention, age, and television exposure.
Conclusions: Just 9 minutes of viewing a fast-paced television cartoon had immediate negative effects on 4-year-olds’ executive function. Parents should be aware that fast-paced television shows could at least temporarily impair young children’s executive function.
So this proves what, exactly? That in the short-term, watching a show that is fast-paced and has mature humor and themes makes it difficult for kids to concentrate on tasks after viewing? Well, maybe they shouldn’t be watching TV before going to class, to sleep, or other things which require a calm demeanor. But didn’t we ALREADY know this? Also, there are a lot of variables at play here, and I hesitate to call this pseudo-science, but it seems like this study is more reactionary than conclusive.
The study had 60 test subjects, a small sample size to be sure, and they were mostly white and middle-class. Plus the options were no television, and then it was between Spongebob Squarepants and Caillou? Caillou is SUPER BORING, of course the kids could concentrate better after watching that show, they were hungry for something to do! Not to mention that 4-year-olds are hardly the most appropriate audience for Spongebob, not to mention the fact that the humor is more than likely way over their heads.
Then you have the short term effects on executive function, and once again, parents who read this study and the subsequent articles don’t usually understand the distiction between short-term and long-term, and this study certainly does not prove any long-term effects, ill or otherwise. And what is it about the show itself that leads to such distraction? The show splices live action in with animation, has musical numbers for no reason, takes place under the water, yet the characters often build fires and cook on open ranges, and body parts fall off and reassemble at will. I mean, c’mon, this show is hella crazy, even sober adults might have trouble functioning at full capacity after watching an episode. And if you’re altered in some way? FORGET IT.
So aside from the flimsy evidence this study purports as a rationale to keep your kids away from the likes of Spongebob Squarepants and his pals, there really aren’t any good reasons why you should. Even a Nickelodeon executive said the show wasn’t made for 4-year-olds, but methinks it was made for YOU.
JELLYFISH DANCE PARTY!