Sesame Street vs. Spongebob: A war over the preschool brain

Boob tube. Idiot box. The vast wasteland. Television has long had a bad reputation for dulling the minds of young and old alike.

Scientists, parents, and politicians have been debating the effects of television for more than half a century. Yet, after fifty-plus years of research, the science still is not settled.

Is some TV good for kids? Is some TV bad?

Research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research calls the PBS children’s TV show Sesame Street, “one of the largest early childhood interventions ever to take place.” The researchers claim that Sesame Street has had positive impacts on childhood development.

The researchers call their results significant. They note that in areas with “weak” TV reception for Sesame Street, about 79.7 percent of children were at the grade level that was appropriate for their age. They estimate that a move to “strong” TV reception for Sesame Street would increase the percent of children at a grade level that is appropriate for their age by 2.9 percentage points to 82.6 percent.

The researchers note that a move from “weak” reception to “strong” represents a 30 percentage point increase in TV coverage. That’s a huge increase. For example, the paper notes that in 1970, the average coverage rate was 69.4 percent (meaning a little more than two-thirds of households could receive a TV signal). So, a 30 point increase would be a huge jump from two-thirds coverage to 100 percent coverage.

While the results may be statistically significant, they do not appear to be economically significant. Even huge increases in Sesame Street coverage are associated with relatively small bumps in kids performing at-grade-level.


Education researchers seem to have a tendency to spin their results to generate the buzz that makes up the 24 hour (or less) news cycle. Spongebob Squarepants, of all guys, highlights this tendency.

A few years ago, the well-respected journal Pediatrics published a study claiming that watching only 9 minutes of Spongebob Squarepants will turn pre-school brains into squishy goo.

The Spongebob warriors had group of 60 4-year-olds who were randomly divided into one of three experimental groups.

  • One group watched 9 minutes of the SpongeBob SquarePants,
  • A second group watched 9 minutes of Caillou, a slow-paced cartoon on PBS,
  • The third group sat drawing.

(Curiously, the researchers didn’t allow the kids to watch the full episodes of the shows, so the kids didn’t know how the stories ended. Weird, huh?)

After watching the shows, the children completed four tasks, three of which are designed to measure executive brain function—such as attention, working memory and problem solving—and one which measured the kids ability to delay gratification.

Here’s what the researchers found:

The fast-paced television group did significantly worse on the executive function composite than the drawing group.

The difference between the fast-paced and the educational television groups approached significance, and there was no difference between educational television and drawing.

Compared to the drawing kids, the SpongeBob kids did worse when the researchers measured the executive function results (attention, working memory, and problem solving).

But compared to the Caillou kids, there was no statistical difference between the two groups of kids. There is a difference between “approached significance” and statistical significance. “Approached significance” is how researchers say, “It’s not significant, but I would sure like it to be.”

But, it get’s worse. The Spongebob vigilantes contradict themselves (or at least mischaracterize their findings) only two paragraphs later:

Children in the fast-paced television group scored significantly worse than the others despite being equal in attention at the outset, as indicated by parent report.

Umm. No. They only scored “significantly worse” than the drawing group in three out of four areas. There was no significant difference between the Spongebob kids and the Caillou kids.

Despite the flaws, the Pediatrics editors gave the go ahead and all Hell broke loose. Heck, even the New York Times jumped on it.

In a world where the sciences is never settled, let’s make today’s Word of the Day skepticism.