Vacuum (n): 1. A space entirely devoid of matter.
It’s not easy to avoid television in America. They're in our cars, our grocery stores, our hospitals, our airports, our restaurants, our shops, our homes. They have migrated from the living room to the bedroom and the kitchen. Some even claim their own “entertainment rooms.” I recently went to a mall near my mother’s house, where they had just installed televisions that hung from the ceiling at 50’ intervals. Just when one had escaped the assault of one TV, another took over, ensuring that, as you shopped, you couldn’t take one step without a commercial blaring at you. A neighbor informed me about a local restaurant that has a television at every table. Now, no longer beholden to watching whatever is on the communal restaurant TV set, you can choose your own programming. Home away from home.
Nielsen reports that the average American watches 5 hours of television a day (Three Screen Report, 2008). The average child watches about 4. And, true to my word, Sophia watches none.
This has been one of the greatest challenges in parenting Sophia. I specifically shop at stores that don’t have TVs. I have rudely asked my friends to turn off the tube when we come over. I have, on occasion, made Sophia face the wall when there was no other option.
Yes, I know you all think I’m nuts. No, I don’t think a ten-minute exposure is going to turn her into a fiend. Yes, I worry that depriving her will make her in a TV junkie by the age of five. Still, I can’t bring myself to allow it…even just a taste. That's the irrational part of me. The thinking part of me is concerned about brain development. Here’s my theory: Years ago, fewer kids were diagnosed with ADHD (From 1997 to 2006, alone, diagnosis of ADHD has increased by 3% each year, CDC, July 2008) . Certainly, the uptake in ADHD diagnoses could be attributed better diagnosis—or even over-diagnosis, with children with high activity levels being mislabeled.
But I think it might have something to do with TV. Hear me out: Three decades ago, when I was a child (and doing my part to contribute to those 5-hour/day stats), shots were long and steady. The camera stayed trained on Mr. Rodgers for what felt like an eternity, (probably at least a good three minutes at a time) occasionally panning to follow him into the kitchen, the front door or the fish tank. But for the most part, there was very little editing.
Fast forward 10 years to 1980. Enter MTV. Music videos spawned a novel, highly visually appealing approach to film making: strobe-like editing. Suddenly, images lasted on the screen for no more than a second at a time. What used to be one cinematic point of view was transformed into hundreds, even thousands of points of view over the course of a few minutes. But here’s the rub—we no longer had to sustain our attention for more than a split second at a time. The images were constantly changing.
Many times a parent with a child with ADHD has said to me something like this: “He can’t sit and focus on his homework for more than a few minutes at a time, but he can sit and watch TV or play video games for hours.” Yes, it is only anecdotal evidence. But I believe there is a reason. I believe that these children are not sustaining their attention for hours at a time when they watch TV or play video games. I believe they are being reinforced for their lack of attention, rewarded with new image after new image.
I would even go so far to assert that the TV is the egg and our children are the chickens: In growing up watching these constantly changing images, I believe the TV actually trains our kids' brains to crave constant stimulation. Why not? Doesn’t every environmental stimulus contribute to a child’s cognitive development? We know that if a child is denied stimulation during critical periods, he/she will be cognitively impaired. So, if a child is over-stimulated during these critical periods, it’s quite possible that a very different sort of cognitive impairment cold result.
I’m operating on a hunch. I’m conducting an experiment. I’m delaying the introduction of TV because, it certainly can’t hurt. And it might help.
Sophia and I were looking at pictures of every-day objects while she was eating her breakfast. She new most of them…jar, elephant, even ice cream, but when she came to a picture of a television set, she paused. “Vacuum?” she guessed.
“In a manner of speaking.” I told her, and we moved onto the next picture.