University of Virginia researchers have given parents another reason to worry about the content their children watch on television: A new study has found that “fast-pasted, fantastical” shows can actually hinder children’s ability to learn and pay attention.

Researchers tested the ability of 4-year-olds to solve problems, follow rules, remember what they had been told and delay gratification immediately after watching either SpongeBob SquarePants, deemed a faster-paced, fantastical show, or a slower-paced show called Caillou. Children who had spent time drawing instead of watching TV were also tested, according to a UVA press release. The children who watched SpongeBob were severely compromised in these areas, according to researchers, but there was little difference in the test results of the children in the Calliou group and the children in the drawing group.

“It is possible that the fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy, where the characters do things that make no sense in the real world, may disrupt the child’s ability to concentrate immediately afterward,” said researcher Angeline Lillard. “Another possibility is that children identify with unfocused and frenetic characters, and then adopt their characteristics.”

She said the study proves these types of TV shows have immediate ramifications on children.

“Young children are beginning to learn how to behave as well as how to learn,” Lillard said. “At school, they have to behave properly, they need to sit at a table and eat properly, they need to be respectful, and all of that requires executive functions. If a child has just watched a television show that has handicapped these abilities, we cannot expect the child to behave at their normal level in everyday situations.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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