Media Use Impacts Attention Span
On the matter of television viewing and attentional problems in both childhood and adolescence, a number of studies in recent years have independently confirmed a significant and long-lasting linkbetween attention deficit disorders and early television viewing. Keep in mind that in 1961, the average age at which children began to watch television was just under three years of age. Today, it is at 5 months.
Additionally, there appears to be a link between early – by early, I mean before the age of three years – and excessive entertainment television viewing and poor academic performance later in childhood, although the viewing of educational television programs at younger ages does not – I repeat, not – seem to cause this effect.
Why the difference? Entertainment television rewards fixed attention to a constantly changing stimulus, whereas educational programs usually have longer scene lengths which better allows for learning.
At least two explanations have been proposed for the clear and repeatedly confirmed association between early and excessive TV and video game viewing, and attentional problems later in childhood.
One explanation targets brain development in early childhood. Because the young brain is developing rapidly, and there is considerable brain plasticity during the first few years after birth, the rapid image and scene changes characteristic of entertainment television programming may over-stimulate the young brain, and adversely affect brain development. Years of brain-scanning studies at UCLA have shown that repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, with young developing brains being the most vulnerable.
Another explanation is that life as portrayed on television, with its fast-paced editing and attention-grabbing techniques, makes reality seem boring by comparison. Fast-pacing and rapid scene changes that are characteristic of entertainment television reward fixed attention to constantly changing stimulus and do not reward self-directed attention to opportunities for learning. Hence children who watch a lot of TV, especially from a young age, may become less tolerant of slower-paced and more mundane tasks, such as rote memorization and school work.
Both explanations may play a role.
And then there is a third, and perhaps simplest, explanation: that television viewing displaces opportunities for pretend play and for self-directed activities, thereby displacing opportunities for cognitive development.
Much more research needs done to sort out which explanation – if not all of them – accounts for the relationship between early and excessive entertainment television viewing, and attention deficit and learning disorders later in childhood.