Children’s Television Impacts Children’s Executive Function and Contributes to Later Attention Problems

16th October 2023

In a study entitled, The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function by professor Angeline S. Lillard, PhD, and Jennifer Peterson, BA of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, researchers concluded that children’s television can have a marked affect on attention problems.

The paper, published September 12, 2011 in Pediatrics, states that “Previous study results have suggested a longitudinal association between entertainment television and later attention problems.”


As much as we would like to think that our favorite cartoons are harmless, fast-paced cartoons do contribute to attention problems in children.

What the University of Virginia study adds is, “Using a controlled experimental design, this study found that preschool aged children were significantly impaired in executive function immediately after watching just 9 minutes of a popular fast-paced television show [Sponge Bob] relative to after watching educational television or drawing.”

The Virginia study delineates between educational television
and entertainment television.

The conclusion is what most of us could discern intuitively, that Sponge Bob, and other fast-paced cartoons, does indeed wind up the spring of children and can affect the attention and ability to concentrate in young children. In this study, sixty four-year-old preschool children were assigned to watch a fast-paced television cartoon, a realistic educational cartoon or to draw for nine minutes.

The children who were assigned to watch the educational cartoon and the children who were assigned to draw, performed significantly better in executive function tasks than those who watched the fast-paced cartoon.

The authors of the study state that “Parents should be aware that fast-paced television shows could at least temporarily impair young children’s executive function.”

Executive Function Skills

Functions associated with the Executive Function (EF) are part of the skills associated with the prefrontal cortex, which include, goal-directed behavior, attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation and delay of gratification (as opposed to instant gratification, commonly associated with television). EF is recognized as a key to “positive social and cognitive functioning.”

Therefore, EF has a bearing on the overall success of children in school, on a wide range of fronts. Long-term effects of watching television for children have been documented in some studies, this was the first to consider short-term effects. The study states that “even adults report feeling less alert immediately after watching television.” And that “Entertainment television is particularly associated with long-term attention problems.”

Sesame Street upped the pace of television for children, starting around 1968/1969, however, Sesame Street today is double the pace of Sesame Street when it began over 30 years ago, states Lillard and Paterson.

An "onslaught of fantastical events" in some television cartoons, many contribute to problems with attention in children.

In addition to the fast pace of the cartoon, the authors hypothesize that the “onslaught of fantastical events,” portrayed in the cartoon shown to the children in this study, may have further exacerbated the Executive Function of the children. Additionally, the study does not make conclusions about the long-term effects of watching fast-paced television, and because the cartoon segments were only nine minutes, compared to longer periods of time typically involved with television cartoons for children, the actual effects on EF, including attention, may actually be “more detrimental” than the study indicates.

The actual effects of watching television cartoons may be "more detrimental" than the study indicates

The authors state that “Children watch a great deal of television,” which “has been associated with long-term,” and in the case of this study “short-term” attentional problems.

The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function
Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson
Pediatrics; originally published online September 12, 2011
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919