Reading one of my favorite geeky Web sites, Slashdot, I came across a very interesting article entitled TV Viewing Linked to Attention Problems. The gist of the original source article in British publication New Scientist is that:
“Watching television more than two hours a day early in life can lead to attention problems later in adolescence, according to a large long-term study.”
While the researcher part of my brain, trained from years of graduate school, is crying out that “you can’t conclude causal from correlational data!” I still have to say “Duh, yeah. Watch TV and you lose the ability to focus on things.”
What makes this an interesting topic to us is that we don’t watch much media at all, and our children watch basically zero, or as close to zero as we can reasonably manage. In a typical month they watch no TV (we have no cable, no antenna, no satellite) and maybe one DVD if it’s a special occasion, an average of, what, 30 minutes/week or 3.6 minutes per day.
[by comparison, the Department of Education offers that “On average, children aged 2 to 11 watch about 23 hours of TV per week” which translates to a staggering 49 days/year spent glued to the tube. Yes, one and a half months wasted each year, or, if you multiply it across the 9 years in question, over one entire year of their adolescence watching TV. Scary, scary!]
Not infrequently, we are challenged about this decision we’ve made, mostly by well meaning friends and relatives. Sometimes we hear “I agree with that and wish I could do that with my kids” (which baffles me: just turn off the bloody box!) but sometimes we hear “oh, you’re just hurting them in the long run. If you’re too protective you’ll just make it more enticing and when they’re older they’ll be glued to the set”. Obviously we don’t agree.
Nonetheless, this research does demonstrate one of the reasons that we have been very careful with TV and even with which movies we opt to let them watch: our children frequently just sit and focus on one project, one game, one task for a half-hour, hour, or even longer, and we don’t want to do anything to damage that wonderful attention span.
Back to the research. In the New Scientist article, they note that there are a couple of reasons why watching too much TV as a youngster can adversely affect attention span:
“One [explanation] is that the rapid scene changes common to many TV programs may overstimulate the developing brain of a young child, and could make reality seem boring by comparison. “Hence, children who watch a lot of television may become less tolerant of slower-paced and more mundane tasks, such as school work,” [the researcher] writes.”
A second explanation? They offer that up too:
“It is also possible that TV viewing may supplant other activities that promote concentration, such as reading, games, sports and play, he says. The lack of participation inherent in TV watching might also condition children when it comes to other activities.”
I believe that both are true, at least based on our own experience. Children’s TV, and even movies, are exhausting to watch because they have so darn many scene cuts. Just a few days ago I was watching The Incredibles and marveling how it had at least as many cuts as a traditional Hollywood movie, if not more. If that’s the quick flash multi view world our children are being immersed in, no wonder the day-to-day seems so darn mundane.
Anyway, it’s a classic response to research that you cite the research that bolsters your view and is consistent with your worldview, so it should be no surprise that we agree with the findings of this extensive research project.
But what about you, dear reader? Do you believe it’s logical and reasonable to conclude that too much TV causes children to have reduced attention spans? Or, for that matter, do you think the causality might go in the other direction, where children with lower attention spans are naturally more drawn to TV anyway?