All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice. —George Orwell, 1984
There have been many studies which suggest that television increases violence, increases tribalization, shortens attention span and lowers school performance among heavy viewers. But that is not my concern here. Instead, I am concerned that watching television instead of reading tends to degrade the minds of heavy viewers so that they can not think in abstractions such as “cause and effect.” In other words, the 100 billion dollars spent on advertising each year, has simply burned abstract reasoning out of their minds.
Today with functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), researchers catch brains in the very act of cogitating, feeling or remembering. The scans show that blood flow varies depending upon the type of activity the brain is occupied with. In other words, a child that grows up on a heavy diet of TV viewing has a physically altered brain. Once adulthood is reached, it is still possible to enhance brain function but it requires much more effort. Needless to say, it is naive to expect TV-mutants to “figure it out” anytime soon.
In AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, Neil Postman provides a brilliant analysis of our TV-mutant society:
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
“This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” [p.p. vii-viii]
“From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one’s habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the “analytic management of knowledge.” To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud and even inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached.” [p. 51]
“I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice—the voice of entertainment. Beyond that, I will try to demonstrate that to enter the great television conversation, one American cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago.” [p. 80, Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH; Penguin, 1985. ISBN 0-14-009438]
DOES TV VIEWING HARM KID’S BRAIN DEVELOPMENT?
With suspicions mounting that heavy TV viewing produces passivity and attention disorders among children, brain scientists and communications researchers gathered Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C. to review the issue and plan future research efforts.
Psychologist Jane Healy, author of “Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It,” opened the conference by citing “an epidemic of attention-deficit disorders” and “diminished higher-order thinking skills” as evidence that heavy TV viewing may be harming children.
Healy said it was refreshing to attend a conference at which the nation’s schools and teachers are not being blamed for children’s academic weaknesses. “Teachers are not doing that bad a job nor are the schools that much different. I believe this decline in skills is not the fault of teachers.”
Healy helped plan the conference, entitled “Television and the Preparation of the Mind for Learning: Critical Questions on the Effects of TV on the Developing Brains of Young Children.”
The conference was sponsored by the Division of Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Jane Holmes Bernstein, a researcher at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, added that 20 percent of the nation’s students have “disorders of learning and thinking . . . but consume more than 20 percent of school budgets” in remedial training.
The neuropsychology specialist noted the difficulty of studying how TV affects a complex system such as the rapidly developing brain interacting with the environment. “TV is embedded in a socio-cultural matrix. It may simply be filling a gap. Other cultural factors may be limiting conversation, therefore leading to diminished linguistic skills,” Bernstein said.
The most dramatic research presented was a set of experiments on the developing brains of young rats by noted UC-Berkeley brain scientist Marian Cleeves Diamond. She and her colleagues compared the growth of brain tissue in rat pups in “enriched” environments with those in “impoverished” environments.
Rat pups in enriched environments — large, multi-family cages with a variety of toys — experienced significantly more brain growth than rat pups in smaller, single-family cages with fewer stimuli.
The growth in brain tissue included blood vessels, nerve cells, dendritic branching, synaptic junctions and cerebral cortex thickness.
Diamond found that allowing the deprived rat pups to observe passively the activity in the more stimulating cages yielded no measurable benefit in their brain development.
“Mere observation is not enough to bring about changes” in brain growth. “The animals must have physical interaction with their environment,” she said.
Psychologist Daniel Anderson cautioned against concluding from research on rat pups that heavy TV viewing retards brain development in children. The University of Massachusetts researcher suggested that TV viewing may actually be more interactive than passive.
He even suggested that the ability to attend other tasks — such as homework — while watching TV or listening to the radio may improve a child’s ability to concentrate, since the extra stimulus produces a state of increased arousal.
Though most conference participants seemed to view TV’s harmful influence on children as self-evident, Anderson was one of a handful of contrarians seeking to provide arguments for television’s beneficence.
Another contrarian, Jennings Bryant of the University of Alabama, attacked critics of “Sesame Street” who claim the program’s relatively fast pace clashes with the developmental needs of young children.
He said a recent study comparing editing pace and/or length of shots in TV programs found that prime-time shows such as “Coach” averaged between 6 and 7 seconds per shot, while “Sesame Street” shots averaged about 10 seconds.
MTV, by contrast, averaged less than 3 seconds per shot.
Though Bryant was able to demonstrate the more moderate pace of “Sesame Street” compared to prime-time programs, some participants felt the comparison missed the point.
“It’s quite a commentary on children’s TV when 10 second shots are considered long,” said Jane Healy, following Bryant’s remarks.
Bryant is a former consultant to the Children’s Television Workshop, producer of “Sesame Street.”
Yale University psychologist Jerome Singer called heavy TV viewing “a clear hazard to children.”
He and his wife and fellow researcher, Dorothy, have correlated amounts of TV viewing among children with reading comprehension scores.
They found that children who watched the most TV with the least parental supervision had the lowest reading scores. By contrast, children with low TV-viewing and high parental involvement had the highest scores.
“How parents mediate their children’s TV viewing is the critical factor,” Singer said. Parents who mediated via “discussion” rather than “prescription” ( “That’s not nice” ) were more effective, he said. He advised “limited doses of TV with very careful parental monitoring.”
Psychologist Sidney Segalowitz of Canada’s Brock University said the growing visual and aural power of television threatens “a child’s ability to control his or her own attentional processes.”
An age old, self-defensive brain function called the “orienting reflex” ensures that “we are genetically drawn to novelty.”
Segalowitz called for research to determine “how pervasive is the failure to realize that one’s attention has been captured?”
He also speculated that heavy TV viewing among children inhibits “self-monitoring,” a psychological response that helps the developing child learn how to behave in various social settings. “Self-monitoring is not required when watching TV,” Segalowitz said.
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