Attending to Our Children’s Attention Span
“May I have your attention?” With that request made daily in thousands of classrooms, teachers make an important assumption: Attention must be given from within the child. Because ability to mentally focus, attend, and sustain concentration is an internal process within the human brain-mind, it has to be protected, nudged, and nurtured along in childhood and adolescence. In a very real sense, as the brain develops, so does the capacity for an attention span. The environment surrounding the child, along with the types of experiences throughout childhood and adolescence powerfully impact the development of this capacity.
Hours spent in front of television, video, and computers displace important activities for growing an attention span. In her now classic contribution to understanding media’s impact on brain development, Dr. Jane Healy writes in Endangered Minds, “A ‘good’ brain for learning develops strong and widespread neural highways that can quickly and efficiently assign different aspects of a task to the most efficient system…Such efficiency is developed only by active practice in thinking and learning which, in turn, builds increasingly stronger connections. A growing suspicion among brain researchers is that excessive television viewing may affect the development of these kinds of connections. It may also induce habits of using the wrong systems for various types of learning.” (1)
More recently researchers have confirmed this belief. In 2004, Dimitri A. Christakis and his colleagues at the University of Washington and Children’s Hospital conducted a study on the relationship between screen technologies and ADD/ADHD. Christakis’ research clearly demonstrated that young children face a 10% increase in the risk of having attention problems at the age of 7 for every hour of daily television that they watch. It seems that extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention. Christakis pointed out that the fast-paced images of TV programming can over stimulate and permanently "rewire" the developing brain. (2)
The extremely fragile nature of the developing brain seems lost to many parents. Like clay or wet cement, young brains are readily molded by the input they are given. The wrong input at crucial times of development sets up the child for a lifetime of misery—like being confined to a prison, his or her brain cannot break out of the “mold” that has been set. Four-five hours of screen time, the national average, doesn’t allow children the correct experiences to fully develop attention capacities. And at the same time, that much cumulative time in watching quickly-changing images over stimulates certain brain centers at the expense of under developing crucial parts of the brain that are needed to sustain attention. It’s a downward spiral from there. If we hyper activate low brain centers, they eventually “take charge.” Instead of the thinking cortex being the CEO of the brain’s workings, the reptilian function of impetuous reactions runs the show.
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