Electronic media and the dumbing down of society

Old-thinker news | Sept. 12, 2007

By Daniel Taylor

“It is therefore possible to manipulate the nervous system of a subject by pulsing images displayed on a nearby computer monitor or TV set. For the latter, the image pulsing may be imbedded in the program material, or it may be overlaid by modulating a video stream, either as an RF signal or as a video signal.” — US Patent and Trade Office, Patent #6,506,148, 2/14/03

When television sets moved into homes across America in the 1950’s, families were dazzled by the dawn of a new form of entertainment that would become one of the most popular past time activities in America. Entire generations have now grown up with it, watching on average 4 hours and 35 minutes a day. Some households have more Television sets than people. What effect, if any, does Television have on us?

While there is considerable debate on the content of television programs, the focus here will be on the physiological and developmental effects of television on human beings. However, one recent story is worth mentioning regarding the Pavlovian conditioning of young children through Television and advertisement. As the Associated Press reports,

“Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children. Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches. The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald’s foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.”

Parents have found television to be a convenient babysitter, while “Baby TV” has emerged as a form of “education” for very young children. Is this a good idea?

Jane Healy, an educational psychologist, has warned parents on the negative effects of Television on their children’s development. Healy denounces the television as a good educator, while holding up the traditional and natural mode of human interaction between children and their parents as the absolute best way to aid in development.

Healy writes in the American Academy of Pediatrics magazine,

“Neuroscientists have shown that environmental experiences significantly shape the developing brain because of the plasticity of its neuronal connectivity. Thus, repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child’s environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth, either by setting up particular circuitry (“habits of mind”) or by depriving the brain of other experiences. While appropriate stimuli — close interaction with loving caregivers; an enriched, interactive, human language environment; engrossing hands-on play opportunities; and age-appropriate academic stimulation — enhance the brain’s development, environments that encourage intellectual passivity and maladaptive behavior (e.g., impulsivity, violence), or deprive the brain of important chances to participate actively in social relationships, creative play, reflection and complex problem-solving may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences. In addition, trying to plunge youngsters into academic learning, when they should be personally investigating the three-dimensional world, risks bypassing important aspects of development.”

Healy comments on the negative effects of television,

“Too much television — particularly at ages critical for language development and manipulative play — can impinge negatively on young minds in several different ways including the following:

Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered academic performance, especially reading scores. This may be because television substitutes for reading practice, partially because the compellingly visual nature of the stimulus blocks development of left-hemisphere language circuitry. A young brain manipulated by jazzy visual effects cannot divide attention to listen carefully to language. Moreover, the “two-minute mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing.”

She continues, commenting on the fast paced nature of children’s programming (modeled after advertising research designed to grab the attention of the brain involuntarily) which often includes rapid zooming, panning, and sudden noise. Such experiences, states Healy, “…deprive the child of practice in using his own brain independently, as in games, hobbies, social interaction, or just “fussing around.”

An article from the UK Daily Mail reiterates Healy’s comments on TV’s effect on development.

“Toddlers should be banned from watching television because it can stunt their development, literacy experts warn. Young children become ‘mesmerised’ by the screen but cannot understand what they are watching and even ‘educational’ shows such as Teletubbies may cripple their language skills.

Speech experts believe many children get little opportunity to develop their verbal skills by interacting with adults and siblings. Now a report for the National Literacy Trust has laid bare the apparent damage that watching television can inflict. It points to evidence that preschool children who watch shows aimed at a general audience have weaker language skills.”

Speech lessons are now being given to toddlers in the United Kingdom “….to arrest the shocking decline in children’s communication skills.”

Television has been shown to literally “re-wire” the brains of children. Attention Deficit Disorder – the diagnosis of which has been on a steady rise – has been linked to Television viewing at a young age. Several studies have been done on the connection between Television and attention deficit, one of which was cited by the Associated Press.

“Very young children who watch television face an increased risk of attention deficit problems by school age, a study has found, suggesting that TV might overstimulate and permanently “rewire” the developing brain.”

“‘The newborn brain develops very rapidly during the first two to three years of life. It’s really being wired’ during that time, Christakis said.

‘We know from studies of newborn rats that if you expose them to different levels of visual stimuli … the architecture of the brain looks very different’ depending on the amount of stimulation, he said.”

Researchers involved stated that the programs that the children involved in the study watched was not highly relevant, because it is the Television – the medium itself – that is the culprit.

The hypnotic effect of TV has been employed by doctors who have begun using it as an effective means of distracting children while administering vaccines. Because of the release of endorphins while watching Television, the pain of vaccination is dampened. The BBC reports,

“Researcher Dr Carlo Bellieni said watching television might simply divert attention but it was also possible that the pleasure it generated might stimulate the release of natural painkilling hormones called endorphins.

He also warned the study underlined the potentially powerful effect of television – which might not be welcome in everyday life.”

The release of endorphins while watching Television is likely one of the main reasons that it becomes so addictive, and has earned the title of the “Opiate of the Masses.”

Staring blankly at the TV

Brain waves, which normally operate in the Beta state while we are awake, are drastically reduced to a level similar to sleep while watching Television. Herbert Krugman conducted a study in 1969 designed to discover the effect of TV on the human brain. In The Perfect Machine: TV and the Nuclear Age, Joyce Nelson describes the study. What Krugman found was that the left hemisphere of the brain, the analytical, critically thinking side of the brain is tuned out while watching TV. The right hemisphere, which is the emotional, non critical side continues to function unaltered. Krugman concluded his study by saying that, “…the mode of response to television is more or less constant and very different from the response to print.” Krugman continues, “[Television is] a communication medium that effortlessly transmits huge quantities of information not thought about at the time of exposure.”

Is television your opiate? Does it function as an extension of your brain – or even a replacement? Turn it off and re-discover the world around you.

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