The last time I paid much attention to SpongeBob SquarePants was in 2005, when a fundamentalist Christian organization was accusing him of promoting the gay lifestyle.
This surprised SpongeBob's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, who insisted that sexual preference had never come up during the conception of the show and that he regarded SpongeBob as "almost asexual." This did not deter some critics who continued to insist that SpongeBob was not really romantically in love with Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel from Texas, but instead is stuck on Patrick, his best friend, a starfish.
Rumor also has it that when SpongeBob is not hanging out in his large pineapple house on 124 Conch Street in Bikini Bottom, he wanders over to romp with the Teletubbies, at least one of whom also is alleged to be gay.
You'd think that SpongeBob, a nerdy adolescent shaped like a kitchen sponge and just as square, would be regarded as harmless. But now he's back in the thick of another controversy.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics indicates that allowing 4-year-olds to watch "SpongeBob SquarePants" for even a few minutes can give them short-term attention and learning problems. And allowing them to watch a whole episode of the show, which features about 22 minutes of action, "could be even more detrimental."
The problems surfaced when 60 children in the study were assigned to watch either "SpongeBob" or the slower-paced PBS cartoon "Caillou," or assigned to draw pictures. Immediately after the nine-minute sessions, the kids took mental function tests.
Those who had viewed "SpongeBob" did measurably worse than the others.
Officials at Nickelodeon, the network that airs "SpongeBob," said that the show is aimed at kids ages 6 to 11, not 4-year-olds. But the damage probably is done; poor SpongeBob now will be a parental pariah. His fans will have to watch the show on the sly when the old fogeys aren't around.
I'm sure this is a hazard that parents will have to take seriously. We don't want to plop our kids in front of a supposedly wholesome, entertaining show for youngsters only to give them attention and learning problems.
But this warning does have its place in a long history of trying to pin bad habits on cartoons. When I was young, it was thought that "Roadrunner," "Bugs Bunny," "Daffy Duck," and other cartoons of the day would spawn violent thoughts in our malleable little heads. After all, the characters were always getting conked by frying pans, falling off cliffs, being crushed flat by a steamroller or simply blown up.
Maybe all those violent cartoons led to a fascination with professional wrestling or something, but I never noticed any ill effects.
Parents worried that "The Simpsons," Bart Simpson in particular, would instill bad habits in kids. Ironically, in a show-within-a-show device, the Simpson kids constantly watch a cartoon, "Itchy and Scratchy," which is something like an ultraviolent "Tom and Jerry" cartoon.
Maybe the creators of "The Simpsons" are implying that Bart Simpson isn't really bad, he just watched too many cartoons.
Researchers probably could attribute behavior problems to cartoons such as "Pinky and the Brain," "Beavis and Butthead," "South Park," "Family Guy" and others, which are a lot more malevolent than "SpongeBob SquarePants." But what if, while creating attention and learning problems, these shows also impart some good traits?
If, for example, you aspire to be class clown or the one who can crack up your co-workers at a serious staff meeting, you might need to risk the attention problems and watch these cartoons.
SpongeBob's motto is, "I'm ready!" Ask yourself, how can you be fully ready if you spend your childhood watching "Caillou" and coloring?