Deconstructing Spongebob, Pt2: A Preschool Parenting Lens

Sept. 20, 2011 In part one, the prelude to this post, I tried to frame the notion of critical thinking skills as a sphere to hold up to the light and rotate slowly instead of banging out opinions in point-counterpoint opposite spectrum and debate polarity.

Partly that’s because the two focal points I was covering (CCFC’s rub with Spongebob Spongebob preschool merchandising and David Kleeman’s media literacy HuffPo article on spotting sensationalism spin, researching the research, etc) would compare as apples and oranges, and partly because I find it to be a much healthier worldview overall.

To truly understand the scope, dynamics, and interdependence of data it makes sense to see it in multi-faceted ‘surround sound’ rather than mono channel agree/disagree terminology.

At Shaping Youth I’m always challenged to find people right in ‘the trenches’ to hear directly from those most impacted by any given topic.  So in Deconstructing Spongebob, Part Two, Karen Dahl  dismantles the media messaging and Spongebob research as the parent of not one but TWO toddlers, smack dab in the age group cited in the University of Virginia research study about the impact of fast-paced TV programming on pre-K cognition and ‘executive function.”

From media’s shock schlock of headline sensationalism to marketing’s dodge and deflect spin, Karen helps shine the light on some core questions to ask yourself not just about Spongebob media/marketing but about ALL programming and retail messaging. Please warmly welcome, Karen Dahl…

Studying The Spongebob Study:

Media Lessons in Marketing

A Parenting/Pre-K Perspective

By Karen Dahl

When I first read about the new study that spurred dramatic headlines like Study: Some cartoons are bad for children’s brains and SpongeBob Study: Cartoon Hero May Cause Learning Disabilities! I got angry.

I was angry at the sensationalism.

As I read more articles, I was annoyed at how few linked to the actual study. Many devoted almost as much physical space to [marketing] pictures of the cartoon characters involved in the study as they did to text that actually said anything about the study.

The major networks generalized as much as they could to reach their own demographics and left the viewer with much real information about the study or suggestions for parents of children of any age. And in at least two interviews, Dimitri Christakis, who wrote The Effects of Fast Paced Cartoons, (an accompanying article for the study in Pediatrics) makes comments about the potential long-term effects when that is specifically not what was studied.

When “objective researchers” talk to the media in this way, and members of the media just nod and go on to the next question, they are doing more of a disservice than any fictional television show.

A commenter on a Bloomberg article that debunked the study, wrote, “We’ve gone SpongeBob-less all week and already I’ve noticed that my 4yr old daughter acts out less, is more attentive and generally, much happier overall throughout the day. Before she was watching about an hour or so a day, so I think I’ll keep SB benched for a while; regardless of how funny he is.”

I find this anecdote more informative than almost anything else I’ve read on the topic.

Don’t get me wrong: I am angry at Nickelodeon too, particularly at their response to the study’s claims:

“Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show’s targeted demo, watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology. It could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust,” David Bittler, a representative [he’s actually SVP of Corporate Communications] for Nickelodeon, told ABC News.

The “targeted demo” of SpongeBob is actually 6-11 year olds. However, Nickelodeon knows that younger kids are a huge part of its ginormous market, and what makes it the number one show for kids. They’ve touted this fact not once, but twice in their own press releases in the last few months:

“Nickelodeon is also home to the quarter’s top two animated series on all TV with kids 2‐11, SpongeBob SquarePants and T.U.F.F. Puppy.” Nickelodeon press release, June 28, 2011

“Since its launch in July 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon. The series has been the number-one animated program with kids 2-11 for more than 10 consecutive years and over the past several years, it has averaged more than 100,000,000 total viewers every quarter across all Nickelodeon networks. Syndicated in 171 markets in 36 languages, it’s the most widely distributed property in MTV Networks’ history.” Nickelodeon Press Release, July 7, 2011

Did you catch that?

“100 million total viewers every quarter…most widely distributed property in MTV Networks’ history.”

To say SpongeBob is the glue at Nickelodeon is quite the understatement.

It is highly unlikely that Mr. Bittler and his colleagues are concerned rather than excited that they are reaching young children outside of their target demographic.

As a former “spokesperson” I think their response was a smart one, but as a consumer and a parent, I would have rather Nickelodeon made a smart comment that poked other, more educated holes in the study, and mentioned the apples to oranges comparison that other parties, like David Kleeman, President of the American Center for Children and Media, have made, without focusing on the age demographic.

There has also been much mention of the fact that most of the children were white and from middle- or upper-class families. I would like to learn more about this piece of the target demographic question as well.

When a network that claims to put “kids first in everything it does,” I’m fairly confident that their definition of putting kids first is not the same as mine.

As a mother, I assume that media and corporations and advertisers in the business of providing content to young children in most cases do not act primarily in the best interest of our children.

I don’t expect anyone to automatically act in the best interest of my children that isn’t in my immediate circle of family and close friends, my babysitter, and hopefully, most of the time, my children’s teachers. I think this says something about me, and about our culture.

At the same time, I am extremely grateful for and supportive of people and organizations that do expect more, organizations like The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, who has written a petition to Nickelodeon to stop marketing to preschoolers if they are not the target demographic.

Maybe I should, maybe we all should, demand and expect more. But until we can, I think we should be skeptical of everything that is marketed toward our children in every way. Young children are particularly vulnerable.

I don’t need a study to tell me that after watching a show like SpongeBob that has tons of energy and is fast paced would make my preschooler lose part of the all-important impulse control in the immediate aftermath.

I’m not worried that young children who have seen SpongeBob a few times will be harmed forever, but I do want to learn more. And when more research is done, I want it presented to me, the parent, the consumer, in a way that is straightforward and objective. I want recommendations on what to do about it too.

I’ve read enough comparisons about how SpongeBob is awesome entertainment and Caillou “is the worst.”

Though we don’t watch either show in this house, from what I have seen, I don’t think I disagree with statements like this. But as a mother of small children I view their television watching from a different angle altogether…

Part 3: A Personal Point of View from Karen

Before this study was released, I had been planning a post for Shaping Youth about preschool children’s exposure to movies, television, and media that is clearly marketed toward them and their parents and clearly (in my opinion) not appropriate for them.

I’ve been frustrated about this issue for a long time, but my frustration has been as much with parents/consumers as it has been with the Nickelodeons of the world. This emotion has felt wrong because I don’t believe most parents purposefully do anything to harm their children, nor do I consider the harm done by media in most cases to be severe.

I think most parents aren’t focused on this issue as much as I am (which may be a good thing). And, as someone who seems to get on her soapbox a little too often, I don’t say anything to friends and acquaintances about firing synapses or toddlers’ and preschoolers’ inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

I don’t even say, most of the time, that kids grow up faster and faster because we make them, and they have their whole lives to watch people (or puppets or cartoons) in real life or on television, be mean, sarcastic, scary, and violent. Why expose them to that when it’s not necessary, when there are other options?

I don’t try to teach, instead (I think) I come off as the mom who doesn’t let her kid watch things because I’m strict or overbearing or oversensitive. I think most people think it doesn’t really matter what their children watch as long as it is marketed toward children.

They don’t think it has a lasting impact positively or negatively. And maybe for some kids, or most kids, they’re right. I don’t believe they are but it will be hard to prove either “side” in this “case” eternally right or wrong because it is (nearly?) impossible to control for the variables of input to know what impact watching one show vs. another has on a child long-term. Even this study had necessary (and some unnecessary) holes in it, and it was testing only the immediate after-effects of watching.

I’m the mom who doesn’t allow my three year old, whose grandfather actually makes Thomas the Tank Engine toys, to watch the show because I think the trains can be really mean to each other. Oh, and it’s horribly boring for me (which may make it have positive effects in a study like the SpongeBob one). We don’t watch Caillou either, but not because I think it could potentially do harm, but because I think it’s boring and he’s whiny.

I do realize that in approximately five minutes my son, who will be four in a couple of months, will start to have more and more preferences and more and more influence from peers.

He will spend more time experiencing the outside world without me and these decisions will not be as easy as, “I don’t really like that show because I think sometimes the trains aren’t very nice to each other,” or even better, and easier, “we don’t get that show on our television.”

Also, my son is fairly easy going. He loves the shows he does watch (e.g. Dinosaur Train, Handy Manny, Chuggington, Curious George). It doesn’t really feel like I’m picking a battle at the moment and I know that is very likely to change as he gets older.

Why do children watch television or any other media in the first place?

I think the answer to this question varies by all sorts of demographics, and of course by individual, but for me the number one reason is because I need a break – whether that’s from playing, talking, fighting, engaging, or to attend to my other child.

I have made the choices I have made about the “approved” shows because I have watched them all myself and find them to be entertaining and educational and believe that the best creators of children’s television programming have worked extremely hard to make it both. I don’t think it needs to be an either/or scenario. (see WSJ’s Turf War for Tots)

Karen’s footnote: “Personal definition of educational television: If you pay really close attention and you watch this a lot, you might learn something, but it’s not like reading, or going to school or experiencing something in real life. Good luck!

I think about my children while I’m watching (most shows are only 11 minutes) and if I think they will enjoy it and benefit from it in some way. I draw a hard line against any behavior I perceive to be mean or unkind or un-inclusive in any way.

I think, for a preschooler, there are plenty of shows out there that fit my criteria…I’m sure more fit it than we watch. But he’s three and he’s not asking for more. And, now that I also have an almost one-and-a-half-year-old, she sees what he’s watching, and aside from my belief in the “no television under 2” thing, it’s fine with me that she sees what he’s watching. And I’m somewhat gratified that she doesn’t sit still long enough to watch full episodes yet.

Web sites and organizations like Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media can be helpful in providing guidelines, but even they don’t completely agree on what is good for which audiences.

Just like the necessary issue with MPAA guidelines – no one except the parent/caregiver can make this call: what is good for one kid may not be good for another and what I believe is good for my kid you may not believe is good for yours. Right and wrong – two things that I’m trying to mature away from believing in so much – are much harder to come by here when it comes to the nuances and belief systems involved.

I am not immune to the marketing “traps” of children’s media. Several months ago it seemed that everyone in my son’s social circles was watching and talking about the Cars movies. I am a HUGE Pixar fan but I felt that the movies were too much for his age. Too fast, too scary, too sophisticated. My son loves the color red. He likes vehicles. He started to “love” Cars from the advertisements he saw on the street and on his friends’ clothes and accessories.

I recorded the original movie when it was on basic cable. Then, something crazy happened. I bought him Cars pajamas, underwear and a Hotwheel sized Lightening McQueen when I was in search for a special gift for him. My sister was shocked that I bought something “commercial” and “branded.” I was pretty surprised too. My son was elated. Fast forward a couple of months and I decided to sit down with him and start watching the first Cars movie that I had recorded.

Only a few minutes in, characters were calling each other “idiot” and one car was trying to knock others out of the race. I let it slide. About ten minutes in, after the harrowing cross-country journey that ended with a police chase, I decided to turn it off. He asked me why. I told him I thought it was too much, that some of the cars weren’t being so nice to each other; that it was making me a little uncomfortable. He hasn’t asked for it since. He still loves Cars stuff. He asks for products when he sees them in the store (I say no because I almost always say no in the store). I still can’t wait to watch the movie – and all of the Pixar films with him. Just not yet.

Plus, now he’s too busy watching the Mickey Mouse Club House “movie” that I introduced to him because we’re going to Disneyland with family in a couple of months and I thought that he’d be the only one who wouldn’t know who anyone was.

So, yes, I’m a bit conflicted about it all. Aren’t you?

I can afford to worry about what my child watches on television, and make choices based on lots of education, research, and experience. A lot of people don’t have that same luxury.

It would be really nice if we could all turn on the television and know it would be okay, no matter our child’s age. For the youngest children, I think PBS children’s programming is the closest you get to this ideal.

While the other well-known channels like Disney and Nickelodeon have a lot of valuable and high quality programming to offer to children of all ages, there is also a lot more to navigate. And it’s that much more important for people who don’t have the time or resources to navigate on their own to have their children in front of the television shows that are most appropriate and most educational.

At the end of the day, this conversation should move away from a specific sponge that lives under the sea and we should all – corporations, organizations, and parents/caregivers – remember that children are sponges.

Karen Dahl is a writer, editor, and an operations and communications consultant. From 2003-2010, Karen held a variety of leadership positions at Jumpstart, a national early education nonprofit. Most recently, she oversaw government relations and executive communication. Previously, she led the organization’s operations and human resources teams.

Prior to her work with Jumpstart, Karen was deputy to the communications director in President Clinton’s post-presidential office. She was also an associate producer and assistant to the president at MSNBC, and assistant to the communications director for Vice President Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000. She started her full-time career as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

Karen holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and a B.A. in English and French from the University of Connecticut. She lives in New York City with her husband, Brian Reich, and their two children, Henry and Lucy. You can find Karen on Twitter @kdahlface and on her personal blog, Fruit in my dessert.

Visual Credit/Lead Photo: Spongebob Terminator–Flickr


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