I A N F I R E S T O N E
Web Developer Publishing & Marketing Consultant Dad
2010.12.12. Keywords: television, movies, video games, autism, cartoons, animation, effects on children
Anyone born or raised in the latter half of the 20th Century has heard countless indictments against television, video games and other media as "overstimulating," and therefore neurologically or behaviorally harmful. Kids are thereby transformed into socially detached couch potatoes--plump, underachieving, unmotivated blobs that consume refined carbs and can't pay attention in school. Right? Of course children of the 21st Century are less aware that there are "televisions," as there is a glowing flat screen not just on the living room wall, but in each bedroom, on the home's three computers, mom and dad's cell phones, on the walls and desks at school, center stage at church, in displays at stores, in the waiting rooms of boutiques and the dentist's office, and on the dashboard and perhaps the backs of the headrests in the family minivan. Audiovisual displays are as ubiquitous as shoes, windows and plastic forks.
Education vs. Stimulation
In the early days of television, when the advent of electic utilities made in-home power available in most of the United States, all sorts of electric-powered conveniences could now be mass-produced and sold to every household that could afford them. But how does one convince heads of households that their lives would be much better and brighter with a motorized washing machine, a blender, a refrigerator, a television? The best pitch man is a doctor, scientist, teacher ... or a soldier, if you can link him to your product. Doctors can tell you how blenders better prepare nutrients for your digestive tract; or how the fridge reduces contamination, makes your food last longer, taste better, and in the end, prevents waste. The television, of course, is a fantastic device to show the world, with sound and motion, to your children, and fascinate them with a broad variety of topics and technologies. TV manufacturers and broadcasters were quick to obtain scientific opinions and teacher testimonials claiming that a television in the home meant a better student in school. TV was an easy sell, of course. Radio had paved the way, and electronics had become the first thing to supplant fashion as the must-have status symbol since the Iron Age.
By the time I was born, televisions were well established. In my childhood, claims of parents, educators and a growing number of scientists stated that children were overstimulated by television programming. Of course there were no more than four channels broadcasting in most U.S. regions, and most shows were still in black-and-white, but TV was fast becoming the primary medium for conveying news and entertainment to Western homes. The big shows for children in the early 1970s were Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Kangaroo. Sesame Street was the one to beat. It employed dazzling graphics, such as letters and numbers that could appear and disappear over the heads of colorful, furry, talking and singing muppets. Though I learned to read and write at a young age, thanks in no small part to Sesame Street, I heard many parents and professionals excoriate the show for its slick, advertising-trained producers and directors, and for being too fast-paced with its many brief, 30 second to five minute skits. The world can't compete with all that color, music and magic!
The brainwashing tool that wasn't
Such objections seem quaint and even funny today. But without doubt there was substance at their core. Thanks to experiments in video technology, we now know that strobing lights and colors can trigger seizures and epileptic attacks in children and adults. But how many of us have seen anyone go into a state of shock from the flashy transitions in commercials and video games? The science of the unwanted effects is real, but not as applicable or severe (or exploitable) as the early opponents feared. There were similar outcries against radio, motion pictures, comic books, even baseball. For three centuries in Europe, various lawmakers tried to ban the production of illustrated novels.
Not all reactions against new forms of mental stimulation have come from social conservatives. Several highly progressive, liberal thinkers such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley feared that subliminal messages, exploited by advertisers and dictators, could bring about the corruption, or possible enslavement of the world. Both the left and the right feared that subliminal messages--subtle suggestions embedded in visual media--would compel consumers to buy a soft drink, motivate Germans to further empower the Führer, or cause the world to mindlessly follow the Kremlin or even the antichrist. From the 1930s through the 1980s governments, churches, concerned parents, all feared the exploitation and subversive effects subliminal messages could have on the masses. Some rock musicians gained loads of free publicity by exploiting the alarmists, placing a backward-playing soundbite on an album. Subliminal messages, however, even combined with psychoactive drugs, failed to have the feared, predictable, zombie-producing outcomes. Hypnosis itself can't even boast such influence. Radical mind and behavior subversion are more effectively achieved through long-term cultural isolation and indoctrination, strenuously immersive conditioning, or more extreme measures.
Would you believe that when writing became increasingly available to the masses in early Western history, prominent thinkers railed against it as unhealthy? Socrates railed against the spread of literacy, as he believed it would dwarf the memories of men (the Greek word for read is "anaginosko," literally "to know again," as paper and ink spare the scholar the task of remembering). Indeed, from the dawn of human civilization, bards relayed epic tales, such as Homer's Ilyad, purely from memory.
From what is now known of neuroplasticity, large sections of the brain's cerebral cortex that are today devoted to managing thousands of word symbols, would have been employed in spoken language and memory before the advent of reading and writing. Even today, in central and western Asia, storytellers who can neither read nor write, continue the tradition of conveying the tales of Iskandar (Alexander the Great) and other folk legends to the masses--elaborate stories that take many hours to deliver, which have survived two thousand years or more. Before many ancient texts were ever written--Homer, Gilgamesh, even the books of Moses--they were shared by recitation for many centuries.
Did literacy dwarf human memory and imagination? Reduced, certainly to some degree, but not dwarfed. Did radio and television reduce literacy? Sure, but they gave rise to global communication via phone and computer, and the information sharing and processing that followed. The more means of stimulation and information conveyance we add to our environments, the more competition there is in our brains for processing space. When a new means of input is added to our repertoire, some areas of our brain must decline. The trade-off is functionality--greater utility with more types of information.
Technology and the good parent
We are, of course, animals. We are not silicone-based microprocessors that can crunch all sorts of data without consequence. We have wet, soft, living computers that contain more chemical synapses than electrical. Somewhere in the spectrum of audiovisual input there must be a line, above which the medium brings more harm than benefit. There are lights too bright, sounds too disruptive, and surely patterns and rhythms of some media so dissonant that they do more to scatter and confuse than enrich and preserve. And then there are the moral questions about the lessons and ideologies contained within the media.
So where is that line, and how close to it do we wish to get? We don't really know where it is, and surely the location is in different places for different people, but we have more solid data on the subject than any generations before us. Maybe in ten to twenty years the rapidly expanding fields of quantum physics and neurochemistry will reveal the answer definitively. In the meantime we have to use common sense, informed with reasonably current science. One thing we do know is that cognitive, behavioral and linguistic disorders are on the rise. Is this the cumulative, long-term effect of something new in the human environment? Chemical toxins? Radio frequencies? Electromagnetic fields? Drugs and food additives? Are there new stimuli in our cultures that penetrate the abdomen and uterus and undermine fetal brain development at a crucial stage? You can find experts to say "yes" to any one of those.
This hits home for me, as I am the parent of an autistic child. One of my most respected neuroscience heores, V. S. Ramachandran, who is also a fellow archaeology buff, has conducted research and studies which suggest that autism may be caused by sensory stimulation in utero. May be. The theory suggests that auditory stimulation causes the brain fetal brain to begin a developmental phase of brain-mapping* prematurely, which also ends prematurely, therefore missing out on a linguistic and associative boon in infancy. That sort of freaks me out because my son's mother and I did the ol' classical-music-for-the-fetus-tummy-speakers thing that was popular for yuppie parents from the 80s to the present. Of course the actual cause of the proposed brain-mapping mishap isn't known. I'd rather find out that the growing prevalence of autism is due to environmental mercury or from carpet cleaner than from something we did to enhance his mental development. How many therapies and remedies for children have well-intentioned parents administered throughout history that are actually harmful? Until the discovery of the actual, biomechanical cause of autism, I can only speculate what it is, and I'm past the blame phase for Spencer's autism (I never quite entered one). I'm focused on raising him and enjoying his childhood. Of course, like any good parent, I don't want to subject him to any stimuli that is either premature or counterproductive.
Where I draw the line(s)
Racing to put kids on the latest diets, drugs, therapies and devices will always have the endorsement of doctors, educators and scientists. There's money to be made in selling the next big thing, especially to parents (a market that will often spare no expense to do what's "right" for their child). However, many such things have been detrimental in the past. We KNOW that parental involvement and constructive play have ALWAYS been beneficial to kids, and few kids get enough of them. I know that Spencer will thrive and feel secure with a routine that involves daddy, friends, swimming, drawing, building (blocks, Legos, Tinker Toys), reading, playing catch, and playing with friends. Modern contrivances and novel activities will play a decidedly minor role.
So I have carefully and thoughtfully chosen Spencer's stimuli--his forms of entertainment, communication and information. For starters, nothing is absolutely forbidden, medium-wise. Content is another story, of a certain. It's the proportion of the various media that I actively govern. Since we don't yet know the long-term effects of radio wave bombardment, I prefer his electronic devices to be far removed from his body, so the video game, computer, DVD devices are wall mounted, and he sits 4 to 10 feet away from them. I limit audiovisual stimulation to 90 minutes a day--that may mean 20 minutes of Charlie and Lola (a cartoon) in the morning, 45 minutes of a documentary on auto manufacturing after school (he LOVES documentaries), and 25 minutes of Mario Karts after doing his homework.
We receive no TV service. I personally don't like the relentless materialism, consumerism, sensationalism and triviality of network programming. I believe the saturation of these influences in modern society creates unrealistic senses of entitlement and expectations, which are mindsets and values contrary to sustainable economics and ecology. Such will be the biggest issues facing Spencer's generation. I really don't want him influenced by mainstream commercial media even a third as much as the average American child. I don't think TV is entirely bad, nor do I want it avoided, but he can and will get it elsewhere. Spencer watches DVDs and listens to music that I prescreen, and all computer usage is directly supervised by me. When he's fifteen I may grant him a little autonomy there.
The lion's share of Spencer's entertainment and information in the home come from people--himself, me, and his friends. Spencer draws, builds, constructs, and plays--often with me, sometimes alone, sometimes with playmates. We go outside, we go to the gym, to the pool, to the park, play board games, or just sit and talk. This is time consuming for me, of course. I spend several hours a day getting him ready for school, preparing meals, cleaning house, doing laundry, running errands, picking him up from school, helping him with his homework, etc. But in addition to that, Spencer gets at least two hours of recreation and direct interface with daddy on school days, and weekend days it may be six to ten hours. This is as it should be. As a kid with autism, he needs more face time with real human beings, or he's far more inclined than the average kid to turn inward and be lost in his own reality. But even without autism, I think nearly all children need active engagement with family and friends more than passive stimulation.
Because of Spencer's autism, I have limited TV and prescreened movies not just for their ethical content. As I review children's animated movies and TV shows (on DVD or internet streaming), I find some have dizzying rates of cuts and scene changes, and a driving, kinetic pace of movement. Flash-bang-flash-flicker-pop-whiz-flash-boom-crash! No. Not for 30-90 minutes straight. Not for Spencer. He'll eat that stuff up, but he'll be fit to be tied afterward, and harder to connect with or engage in thinking activities. But now and then, on special occasions, I do let him absorb some high-impact kids entertainment. I don't wish to overshelter (we all know how that turns out).
Ironically, one form of media that my parents once restricted strikes me as acceptible--cartoons. I'm not talking about the rapid-fire, keleidoscopic CGI productions, of course. I mean the hand-drawn fare most of us grew up with. As a former amateur animator, I know very well that it's a monstrous task to try to draw and colorize an orignal work of art for every frame of a 6-to-12-frames-per-second feature. Making a hand-drawn, 45-minute animated feature requires a gaggle of illustrators and colorists, and is a monumental exercise in energy conservation. Action is often achieved by panning a static image, or moving just one or two characters on a stationary background. Dimension is created by moving multiple layers of still images at different speeds. Repetitious movements of on-screen characters is done by cycling through a short sequence of positions. In the end, a traditional animated feature, by nature, preserves visualizations in the viewer's eye for longer periods of time than just about any other type of motion picture. Spencer is both enthralled and inspired by the panoramic animated features of Miyazaki or early Walt Disney without ending up in a nervous fugue. Scenes may run up to 30 seconds without a complete cut, whereas some children's shows may average an entirely fresh image 20 to 50 times per minute.
Your typical American youth spends 4-1/2 hours a day watching television (say the Nielsens). Video games, computer surfing, phone chatting stacked on top of that result in media saturation (and radiologic and EM field exposure) never before seen in human history. Rather than succumb to that trend, I'm willing to buy used clothing, used books, take cheap vacations, own less stuff, and cook home meals to afford the extra time required to occupy Spencer's schedule with what I deem are healthy, character-building, emotion-stabilizing activities. Yes, he still gets to play video games and watch exciting shows, but within reason.
Monkeys like shiney things, and like my fellow primates, I also crave the homosapien monkeyshine: luxury items--clothes, gadgets, cars, vacations, fine dining. But not at the expense of my son. Two hours of quality time with my son bring me more satisfaction than any sports car, and do him more good than a flickering screen.
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