Another “take” on the SpongeBob study

This analysis by a seizure safety detection tool for video material identifies the frames in a SpongeBob sequence that failed to meet safety guidelines. Click to enlarge.

Although the headline writers have had a bit too much fun with the story, it’s gratifying to see all the media interest in the just-published Pediatrics study showing the immediate effects of a SpongeBob cartoon on kids’ brain function. (In case you’ve been living in a pineapple under the sea, children in the study showed impaired executive function — attention and self-control — immediately after viewing SpongeBob for just nine minutes.)

Refreshingly, the study was not interested in the cartoon’s thematic content or the societal values the content might promote. Instead it set out to determine the immediate effects of extremely active animation on the cognition and self-regulation functions handled by the prefrontal lobes. The fast pace of the SpongeBob cartoon, involved rapid scene changes compounded by nearly constant character movement within each scene. As a companion paper in the same journal issue points out, “media is a public health issue, and harm-reduction approaches are what is needed. Steering children and adolescents toward safe or even health-promoting media activities must be a goal…”

The study authors speculate that, “in addition to the pacing…the onslaught of fantastical events that was also present in the fast-paced show might have further exacerbated EF [executive function]. Whereas familiar events are encoded by established neural circuitry, there is no such circuitry for new and unexpected events, which fantastical events often are. Encoding new events is likely to be particularly depleting of cognitive resources…”

Seizure-inducing flash/flicker and patterns and unexpected/fantastical are commonly found in video games, cartoon animation, music videos, TV content and advertising. So it’s not much of a leap to consider the impact of the frenetic pace and visually taxing experience of high-powered video games on children’s neural circuits — as they simultaneously process the imaginary world onscreen.

I doubt that many SpongeBob video clips comply with the guidelines for prevention of visually induced seizures. With the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, I tested the only SpongeBob clip I was able to download, and, as the screen capture shown above illustrates, the cartoon failed to meet the guidelines. In other words, the active cartoons are visually taxing in a way that includes the qualities of light, pattern, and flash that can trigger seizures. Wonder how many of the 4-year olds had abnormal EEG firings while watching SpongeBob…even a quick burst of abnormal electrical rhythm in the brain that doesn’t develop into a clinical seizure can produce cognitive and other functional impairment.

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