The SpongeBob Effect

September 13th, 2011

The American Academy of Pediatrics told us this week that SpongeBob Squarepants may be contributing to Attention Deficit Disorder in kids. They didn’t say it in those exact words, but that’s what their recent study with four year-olds seems to suggest. Apparently, watching a nine minute clip of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon negatively affects their attention spans.

This doesn’t surprise me, because watching Sponge Bob affects my attention span.

More and more, our culture is becoming one where it’s harder and harder to hold people’s interest. This trend has been developing since the early days of television, but the rise of the VCR in the 1980’s and the availability of on-demand kids programming for busy parents were the factors that really brought us to the spot where we currently find ourselves.

More to the point, almost everything is visual now, and if your church or ministry hasn’t jumped on that train, it’s not just the kids you’re going to lose, but the adults too.

Remember Barney the purple dinosaur? His first fans are turning 20 next year. The first generation of toddlers to really experience television as a babysitter have now become young adults, and they’ve brought their shorter attention spans with them from their teenage years.

Of course everyone isn’t equally affected by television, and some of us watched more of it growing up than others. But I can’t help but think that our fast-paced multimedia world is having a negative impact on our ability to sit down and do things like read the Bible, pray, or listen to a sermon that’s more than 10 or 15 minutes long. And it’s only getting faster. Check out a music video from the 1980’s and then watch one from today. Count the time between camera angle changes, wipes, fades and cuts. You’ll probably notice that it’s gotten a lot shorter.

I worked in youth ministry for much of the 2000’s. Many of the kids I ministered to hated to read, especially the boys, so motivating them to explore the Bible on their own wasn’t usually easy. Getting them to stay focused for even a 15 or 20 minute talk was sometimes next to impossible. But the reality is that this generation still needs to read and hear the word of God as much as previous ones needed to.

So how should the church be responding to what I believe could be a crisis?

I wish there was an obvious answer. Probably the most effective way would involve a combination of meeting people where they are while simultaneously taking them to another level.

Perhaps a combined strategy of innovation and conditioning.

Having our senses bombarded with noise and visuals can be addictive. I’m discovering that this week. Every now and then I do a total “TV fast” for a few days to focus on studying Scripture and learning to listen to God better. The first night I nearly drove myself crazy trying to read my Bible! I’ve grown so accustomed to reading with cable news or music going in the background that I was having trouble concentrating because of the silence! The second day went much better, and I expect I’ll find it even easier as the week moves along. The human brain can do some amazing things... overcoming media withdrawal isn’t such a tall order—but at first it’s definitely a shock to the system.

The church should be using cutting edge media to reach people—especially to get their attention. Like it or not, that’s the language the world speaks and we need to be able to speak it too. But it’s important to gradually teach Christians to be able to sit still, to pray, and to read. God can speak through flashing visuals while we’re responding to text messages and listening to an iPod. But from my experience, he’s more likely to speak when all that stuff is turned off.

If upcoming generations never really learn how to function with everything turned off, and they aren’t able to be engaged by written words with nothing other than their imaginations to assist them, we’ve got a big problem.


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