Monday, June 14, 2010

Media Monday (umm...Tuesday?): Attention Span

I recently found this article from USA Today's website. Granted, it was published in 2005 and a lot of research has been done since then, but I think the article is interesting nonetheless. The article examines attention span and its relationship to digital media exposure in a rather shallow review of a study on the topic. The research in question found that lower grades in school were inversely correlated to video game play time, but that exposure to television and computer use bore no correlation. It also found that time spent reading books was correlated to grades in school.

However, the article focuses on a complaint common among modern parents and teachers that kids just can't sit still like they used to. In addition to diagnoses of learning disabilities, social deficits, and ADHD going through the roof in frequency, "neuro-typical" kids are increasingly unable to sit still or concentrate on one thing at a time. They don't know how to tune out extraneous stimuli, and they don't have the patience to work through challenging activities.

Personally, I think that focusing so much on the use (and overuse) of high-tech devices as an explanation for these problems is kind of like blaming obesity in America entirely on the popularity of ice cream--the consumption of vast quantities of ice cream doesn't help, but it's not the sole cause of the problem. American culture increasingly demands multi-tasking and inattentiveness of all its citizenry, not just the kids. I've worked in retail, and I've seen customers unable to focus on making purchasing decisions for more than a couple minutes without taking a break to regroup. I've also driven on American roadways and seen multi-tasking there!

But it's not just that. In modern American family life, where exactly are kids supposed to pick up the ability to focus on one thing at a time and sit still? Is it when they're doing homework and eating dinner in the back of the car en route from soccer to karate class? Or is it at home, during "family time," when dad is watching the game while talking on the phone and checking his email; mom is helping with homework, compiling the grocery list, and fixing a snack while also on the phone; and the kids are playing, eating, doing homework, and enjoying the game with dad? Perhaps it's at school. Nope, not there either. At school, they have to do their own portion of work while coordinating team activities, listen and respond to the teacher, ignore the sounds of some other class in PE outside, and secretly chat with friends about last night's episode of their favorite show.

Now that I think of it, it's no wonder these kids spend so much time glued to some kind of screen during their down time. How else can they assimilate all the information being thrown at them? Sleep doesn't provide enough time for it.

I'll admit that the way video/computer games and television shows/movies are formatted doesn't help. There's plenty of evidence of that. But often, when we see something in others that we find disagreeable, it's actually a reflection of our own behavior or character that we dislike. I suspect most Americans would be happier if we could slow down a little and do a little more focusing and a little less multi-tasking, but it's hard to break the habit, especially when the realities of life so often demand it.

Dear readers, please understand that this article is not to accuse anyone of bad parenting or make any parent feel bad for the life they lead. I know I personally spend way too much time glued to the computer or trying to do too many things at once, so I can hardly blame anyone else for doing the same. What I am saying is that many of the problems that plague Aspies seem to be problems, albeit to a lesser degree, for the larger population--problems stemming from the need to adapt to our own lifestyles. Perhaps it's time that we, as a country, reexamine those choices and decide which aspects of our lives really matter, and which aspects are superfluous or distracting.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your reviews. I especially related to the one about multitasking.I recently returned from spending 4 weeks in Hawaii, mostly without Internet, cell phone, TV or radio. I had a key to a mailbox in the town 5 miles away, and I could check my email at the library if the Internet was working there, and I could make a cell phone call from the parking lot. I have been out of touch with my California friends for the most part, just a half dozen phone calls this past month. It was a great vacation. But my choice on returning home was to spend a full day on the computer catching up on email, returning phone calls, and watching TV.

    Part of my Hawaiian holiday was a family reunion. Around two dozen family members and close friends gathered at a cousin’s beach bungalow every afternoon. With that number of personalities, the absence of drama was notable.