Computers, TV, and a Diminishing Attention Span

Is TV rewiring our brains in a bad way?

I have been delighted to read articles by Tim Cannon in recent editions of News Weekly and in particular, the attention given to the words of Baroness Sarah Greenfield: "Can computer games harm children's brains?" (November 14, 2009). It is impossible in a short article to cover fully the subject of changes in the human brain but it has been an interest of mine for a very long time.

I earnestly hope we see more of Mr. Cannon's writings, and it is important to remember that Baroness Greenfield is a distinguished neuroscientist engaged in work on the brain at Oxford University. We are not talking about a gifted amateur but a genuine academic.

Baroness Greenfield is particularly interested in brain changes caused by computer games and she has also mentioned in articles in the British press the effects on the brain of social networking, gaming, the Internet and similar matters. By contrast, I am a social scientist who is proud to be called an empiricist, and believe me, part of a dying breed.

While Baroness Greenfield is interested in the mechanics of the brain, my interest is in the behaviour that follows - the social consequences.  I trace changes back over many years and happen to believe that technology and our use of it has induced brain changes.

Drowning in a Sea of Trivia

The first and greatest is that we are beset with data and information almost to the point of saturation; it is impossible to assimilate everything. There is good reason to believe that the brain grabs or seizes what it wants or what stands out most in a given context. Thus, we can reinforce prejudice or change our minds.

However, an attendant problem is the question of whether our brains are capable of processing all the information we receive from the media or any other source.  To the extent that I am interested in the chemistry and mechanics of the brain, we should realize that even while we are asleep, the brain still processes information and there is a clear analogy with leaving a computer turned on to conduct routine maintenance overnight.  Such is the wonder of God's creation, the most powerful computer in the world.

The matters that concerned Tim Cannon sufficiently to write also preoccupy me at times when I read or hear of certain activities and developments.  Expanding on the ideas of Baroness Greenfield, I would argue that it's not just computer games that can affect children's minds, and adults are not immune.  The computer is a comparative latecomer to mind-altering technology.

Before TV and radio, simple verbal communication in the form of rhetoric changed the brain for good or ill, and as George Orwell noted, control of the language is all-important in shaping opinion.  In many respects, speakers have the same effect as the electronic media.

As an example I cite the end of the Cold War and the triumph of the so-called neocons and their ideas, which spread around the world.  We inherited a whole new language and thanks to more perceptive writers such as Don Watson (Weasel Words and Rubbery Phrases) we are now in a position to see how managerial-economic speak seized the public narrative and dominated politics.  Our politicians acted on the accompanying nostrums to the detriment of family life and, paradoxically, independence.

Paul Kelly of the Australian newspaper wrote about "the end of certainty" in a book of the same name (1989). Although he deals with politics, the language is that of the new political-economic-managerial paradigm.  I'll explain briefly with two examples.

Firstly, consider the oft-quoted words of Margaret Thatcher that there was no such thing as society, merely individuals making their own way.  It was unfortunately repeated around the world and our humanity was demeaned accordingly.

Then there was Jeff Kennett, sometime Premier of Victoria, who apparently refers to people as revenue-earning units or non-revenue-earning units: not people, merely economic abstractions as though there was no human input.

While these ideas have been somewhat discredited, they linger in government departments and business. Try reading government reports or advertisements for employment.

Science brought the world into our living rooms with TV and radio: even more so with the advent of satellite communication.  I don't begrudge people entertainment but so many are diverted by TV in that form that they suspend reality and I perceive that as a problem.  I spend very little time watching TV because it has become abundantly clear that advertisements rule and news is secondary; furthermore, the notorious 30-second soundbite has now been dumbed down to about 10 seconds.

The effect of TV on housing and social relationships is well-established: in America, houses are built without kitchens and in the UK, in three families out of five, there is no dining table.  Meals are taken in front of the TV. The ubiquitous box or should I say boxes, because most homes have more than one TV, are for the most part passive babysitters, occasionally channels of doctored information, tailored to the low IQ and at worst, the TV junkie becomes desensitized.

Watching the amount of violence on the news is supplemented by programs, which depict graphic and/or gratuitous violence, casual sex and mindless or dare I say, gormless entertainment - TV quiz shows which appeal to the female viewer because prizes can be won and money can be made. In short, TV caters for most tastes, including mine because I am something of a political and sports junkie but for the most part, my TV is turned off.

Then there is the ubiquitous computer.  It's staggering to think of how much the technology has become miniaturized and powerful in just over half a century.  If you have the luxury of an iPhone or similar G3 phone, you can hook into the Internet just about anywhere, and your laptop is more powerful than the computers on Space Shuttles.

To Each His Own Prison

I would argue that TV, especially with colour, began the desensitization process of both children and adults. "In-your-face broadcasting" changed social norms and behaviours: good manners and civility suffered as a consequence.

Although interactive TV is with us now, personal interaction with a computer is virtually a given.  From the moment kids get into school, they are introduced to computers and the Internet. They come home from school and these days, a child's room in a fairly average home is "their" territory. Parental rights have been displaced by the rights of the child, which include strange notions of privacy.

The modern parent can be in the wrong by "trespassing" in a child's room and trying to establish what they are watching on TV or surfing on the Internet.  Their social interaction is greatly reduced and often conducted by computer and mobile phone.

Mobile phones are practically mandatory for many schoolchildren and the more creative can cheat in examinations.  Indeed, a G3 phone in an examination room can get you to the Internet and Wikipedia or other sources of information.  It leaves cheat sheets inside the school blazer or written on the inside of the arm totally redundant.

The first interactive games for personal computers fell into two broad categories.  The first was the knock-'em-down, shoot-'em-up or otherwise obliterate electronic component - does anyone remember Pac Man?  It's still there if you want it.  The more constructive computer programs such as Sim City offered a challenge to be constructive and solve problems; others put you in the pilot's seat of an aircraft and gave you a flying experience.

However, walk through any TV games store anywhere in this country and you will find that the games that sell best are the ones that involve action and violence, whether on games consoles, computer, or TV.  The characters are increasingly more complex and in some cases more human than alien. The objective is to kill or be killed.

The military uses computer programs to desensitise soldiers to killing other human beings.  And while I can't point to any research, I wouldn't mind opining that teenage violence is more prevalent because of "gaming."

I confess a certain weakness to some computer games but only those that rely on hand-eye coordination or other more intellectual skills.  An unknown percentage of the population ranging from 7 to 21 engages in TV or computer games and the problem doesn't end there.  While I see some humour in the situation, I also see a possible dystopian future where people don't really learn but rely on what they are told or assimilate through various media - checking the facts has been replaced by Wikipedia.

Recently I read an article from a US website, which was modified slightly for my local paper; while I do not have access to the full article, the summary was quite enough for me.  The director of the University's Impulse Control Centre talks about rewiring the human brain through technology and offers a quote, which sent a chill up my spine: "The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets, [the] less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information.  And I think we might lose the ability to analyse things with any depth and nuance.  Like any skill, if you don't use it, you lose it."

Empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that young and old alike have a diminished attention span today in comparison with the past.  Even academics have confessed that they are literally driven by their computers.

Space does not permit me to develop this theme further at present, but 21st-century man is now unmenaced by predators and has to worry more about a bank balance than the more basic needs of life.  It seems to me that just as America is producing young children whose parents boast that their children have Attention Deficit Disorder and therefore require Ritalin or a similar drug to counter hyperactivity and nullify ADD, Australia will not be too far behind.

I fear that rather than becoming more intelligent as a race, humankind will have its mental capacities and faculties effectively disabled by a technology which was intended to educate and learn.  More disturbingly, as the young hook into virtual worlds where they can be someone else, they can be targeted by paedophiles or as in the case of mobile phones, threatened, harassed and driven to become even more alienated.  I often wonder whether the society of the future will be a netherworld of half-reality accompanied by dysfunctional behaviour prompted by technology.

This was a random sample from the Internet, verified to some extent by browsing a local games shop.

When does an addiction to Internet become a problem?

Christopher Marlowe is a retired intelligence operative from a major NATO nation.  Read other articles by Christopher Marlowe or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
One part of me wants to say this is probably the same doom and gloom pontificating that would have occurred when spears began to replace clubs as the preferred hunting tool. "Sure," Ogg might have said, "it's better, but we are going to have a whole generation of kids who won't know how to kill a bear in close combat."

On the other hand, the continual flow of stories about about young kids perpetrating horrifyingly vicious crimes with seemingly no remorse and certainly no empathy make me thinks twice about such a glib response.

I also have to note how my own perspectives changed when I got rid of my television about 10 years ago. Without a constant barrage of pre-decided "important" news I found I had a much calmer view of the world and things that actually applied to me in my local environment became more engaging.

Thanks for a very thought provoking article.
December 21, 2009 12:06 PM
As a person that grew up with video games, who has made video games, and who spends much of his free time playing video games: I would say that this is entirely nonsense.

The idea that seeing someone killed on TV or in a video game can 'prepare' someone for the real thing is nonsense. There is no evidence that I have ever seen that states that violence in video games causes children to become violent and there is evidence that states the opposite. Grand Theft Childhood found that children who don't play video games are more likely to be violent (see the book, at least read the webpage, it is more complicated than I am laying out here).

From Zelda to Half-Life 2 puzzles and intellectual problems that require a good amount of time to solve video games do not, by and large, encourage a short attention span. Portal, which became very popular, is a game entirely made up of puzzles.

Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates is another game which is at least fairly popular that not only encourages thinking via puzzle games but also encourages thinking about trade routes and how to manage large groups of real people to achieve specific goals. Eve Online also has incredibly complicated politics and group efforts.

People today have great patience if, and only if, it is patience for something that they enjoy. You can hear children go on for an hour about the relative strengths of the different races in WarCraft III, these same children who can't sit still for more than a minute in math. The problem isn't video games, the problem isn't television the problem is spoiling children.

Children must be given chores, must be told no, must be spanked when they make noise in Church. Parents tired of having to make their children sit still and thereby learn patience instead send the children off to a kids room to play through church. Parents will buy a child something because they start crying. Parents will feel back about giving their children chores because they want to give them time to be 'kids.'

Children won't start acting like adults until they have to face the consequences of their choices. Instead of punishing our children we give them drugs. Instead of making children reap the negative consequences of their actions we protect and harbor them.

I would agree that using computers or TVs as baby sitters is bad. I would agree that there is no need for children to have TVs or Computers in their own rooms. I would also say that parents need to let their children live. I know many parents who are scared to let their kids play outside. What do you expect them to do other than watch TV or play video games?
December 21, 2009 11:52 PM

Anybody who expresses the invalidity of this article based on how the games revolve around them renders their own thoughts invalid. It's important to pay attention to how individuals act before and after games have been played, short-term and long-term so you can note the differences between them. It's easy to affirm that you've been immersed in computer-based activities all of your life and issues of destruction aren't happening in your immediate environment. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist. Digital-based games do do a number on you if you're not careful, especially those with killing as part of their themes. And they do alter thought processes. Health studies express that more than 2 hours per day of computer exposure prove especially harmful in the long run; even more harmful when sitting down. (Consult sources like USAToday and the American Academy of Pediatrics). So many kids lack the ability to be conscious of how digital-based activities affect them, which is why parents need to go the extra mile to either cut them off or REGULATE their time of exposure to such, if they're that obsessed with them. Not only does this cut down on their exposure, but it teaches them responsibility, and they can judge right and wrong a lot more solidly. Plus, their attention span won't be as threatened. Why use drugs when you can use discipline? Yes, kids are being spoiled, which is a larger culprit for kids' behaviors as well. But honestly, in larger context, the two are finding themselves blending into each other's roads here and needs to be addressed. This is anything but nonsense.

There are countless activities kids can do other than watch TV or play video games: Sports, (physical) puzzles, outdoor adventure games, biking, walking, juggling, they can even help with community projects with neighbors or friends, they could do word puzzles..... All of which involve more movement and cognitive problem solving than sitting at the screen and watching images interact. Furthermore, lasting effects of these activities prove more enlightening and healthful behavior-wise than behind the screen. I indirectly quote Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." You can't spend your life as audience of a projector.

January 11, 2013 3:28 PM

@Pdpad "All of which involve more movement and cognitive problem solving than sitting at the screen and watching images interact"

Movement perhaps, cognitive problem solving... depends on the game and the activity, but you try playing StarCraft II and see how well you do. Its like playing chess with a 100 of pieces all in real time, except more complicated, the professional StarCraft II players will make over 100 useful actions per minute. How about something like Counter Strike, it requires amazing reflexes, incredibly fast object recognition, high level team work and the ability to create dynamic strategies on the fly. World of WarCraft requires up to 40 people to work together in orchestrated and dynamic ways where a single person failing to work with the team can mean the entire group fails.

You believe my arguments are invalid because I have first hand knowledge. I believe your arguments are lacking because you don't. You are arguing from ignorance with a couple of studies that can find minor correlations (not causations) between playing video games and health issues. I can find studies that find correlations between playing video games and being less violent and more social. I also can find studies that show video gamers have better visual and pattern recognition and are better problem solvers.

If you do nothing but X then you're not going to be healthy. Fill in X with whatever you like and it will be a true statement. However, video games a part of a balanced life style are certainly no worse than fantasy foot ball, reading novels, watching tv, or skiing. And all of them when taken to extremes are very unhealthy.

But best of all, something not too many other hobbies can claim, computer games or more correctly, video gamers are solving some big questions of science.

January 12, 2013 2:12 AM
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