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Children and Cartoons

Our recent study in Pediatrics (Lillard & Peterson, 2011) has generated much interest.  We found that 4-year-olds who had just watched 9 minutes of a fast-paced, fantastical television show were significantly impaired in what psychologists call "executive functions"--processes that guide goal-directed behaviors, including attention, the ability to inhibit immediate desires in favor of better long-term outcomes, the ability to follow directions and solve problems, etc--were significantly impaired compared to those of 4-year-olds who had watched slower-paced educational show or drawn with crayons and markers for 9 minutes. IN a study we are writing up now, we replicated this result with 160 4- and 6-year-olds, using two different fast-paced and fantastical television shows and 11-minute episodes.

  • What does this mean for parents?  Parents should always observe their children and tailor activities to what they observe, but parents are busy, and don't always have time.  At this point, all we would suggest from this research is that parents take an extra look at their child after watching such shows. If their self-regulation seems impaired afterwards, parents might want to limit amounts and restrict times when such shows are watched.
  • Isn't the show in question for older children anyways, so this research was targeting the wrong age?  The fact is, the show is very popular with young children. To say the target age obviates the need to know how it impacts younger children is like saying we should not study the effects of drugs on kids because they aren't supposed to take them.
  • Were so few children tests (60) that we should ignore this research?  It was an experimental study, and the results were statistically significant. This means that the chances of getting this result in a random sample of 4-year-olds in the population is less than 5 in 100.  So there is a small chance that it was a fluke, perhaps because the 20 children who were randomly assigned to fast, fantastical television had poorer executive function to begin with. However, their parents rated them as being about the same in attention problems, so this does not seem likely.
  • Didn't the idea that fast-pacing is a problem get put to bed in the 70s?  Dan Anderson of UMass did some very important work on the issue and dismissed it.  The difference here is: we are also looking at fantastical content, and we think the combination might be toxic to attention.  Second, today's shows are quite different from those of the 1970s, with the use of computers allowing for different special effects. 
  • Is it just that children were more entertained by the fast-paced fantastical one?  Children did not appear to be more entertained--they were transfixed on both shows, and wore similar expressions.