SpongeBob SquarePants is in hot water after a study suggested that watching the cartoon for just nine minutes could cause short-term attention and learning problems in four-year-olds.
The problems were seen in a study of 60 children randomly assigned to either watch SpongeBob, or the slower-paced cartoon Caillou or assigned to draw pictures.
Immediately after these nine-minute assignments, the children took mental function tests; those who had watched SpongeBob did measurably worse than the others.
Previous research has linked TV-watching with long-term attention problems in children, but the new study suggests more immediate problems can occur after very little exposure -- results that parents of youngsters should be alert to, the study authors said.
Cartoon shows typically feature about 22 minutes of action, so a full programme "could be more detrimental," the researchers speculated, But they said more evidence was needed to confirm that.
The results should be interpreted cautiously because of the study's small size, but the data seem robust and bolster the idea that media exposure is a public health issue, said Dr Dimitri Christakis. He is a child development specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital who wrote an editorial with the study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
Dr Christakis said parents need to realise that fast-paced programming may not be appropriate for very young children. "What kids watch matters, it's not just how much they watch," he said.
University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Lillard, the lead author, said Nickelodeon's SpongeBob shouldn't be singled out. She found similar problems in children who watched other fast-paced cartoon programming.
"I wouldn't advise watching such shows on the way to school or any time they're expected to pay attention and learn," she said.
Nickelodeon spokesman David Bittler disputed the findings and said SpongeBob SquarePants was aimed at children aged 6-11, not four-year-olds.
"Having 60 non-diverse kids, who are not part of the show's targeted (audience), watch nine minutes of programming is questionable methodology and could not possibly provide the basis for any valid findings that parents could trust," he said.