Monday, July 16, 2012

Link between Sesame Street and heroin

We are visual critters, bound by a brain molded by countless generations in a very different environment--if something moved, it mattered.

Computers themselves don't move much, other than an occasional trip through a window.  We are, however, captivated by their screens. Our minds see through the monitor, into a world of suspended belief. This world of sudden changes hooks us:
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
Matt Richtel, "Attached to Technology and Paying a Price," New York Times, 6/6/10

Dopamine surges increase our attentiveness, but it's not saber-toothed tigers that excite us now. I love Sesame Street, even use clips in class at times, but I suspect that it has done almost as much harm as good--dopamine squirts have become de rigeur in education.

And we have paid a steep price.

Sesame Street used the same production tricks that commercial studios used to captivate audiences: the medium becomes the show:
If we are going to attract children to quality children's programming, then it must have the production values (meaning pace, humour, professional performing talent, film inserts, animation and so forth) to which today's young children have become accustomed.
Richard M. Polsky
Author of Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children's Television Workshop

People will go to great lengths for their next pulse of dopamine. Just ask a heroin addict. Or anyone who designs propaganda. Or a television producer.


There's a big movement among the Twitterati to allow kids to chase their own interests--and I strongly agree that a child will not learn much if she is not interested in the topic--but this movement somehow has gotten confounded with the high technology that lets kids find information (not knowledge) on, well, just about everything.

Kids need visual stimulation; kids do not need computer screens.

There was an analogous movement in food choice for children not so long ago, one that continues today. A few folks blamed Dr. Spock (no, not that one), but the original article was by Dr. Clara Davis back in the 1930's.

Her words got bastardized, and many believe a child will "naturally" select healthy foods if left on her own:

"In her studies, children were presented with a variety of foods, both healthy and unhealthy, and allowed to eat whatever they wanted and as much as they wanted. Over time, they naturally and intuitively chose healthy foods in the exact balance of nutrients and amount of calories that they needed for peak function."

Except that's wrong--she never said that. It's just silly.

Here's the original list of foods the children were allowed to choose from:

No Fritos. No Doritos. No Cheetohs.
"The results of the experiment, then, leave the selection of the foods to be made available to young children in the hands of their elders where everyone has always known it belongs."
Dr. Clara Davis
Left to our own devices, we choose behaviors that kept us alive in a very different time.

If a calorie-dense food was around, you ate it--but corn syrup didn't exist. If you saw a sudden movement , you paid attention (eat or be eaten)--but monitors did not exist. Those of us who made the best of the available choices were more likely to reproduce than our less blessed neighbors.

We do not easily buck our atavistic tendencies, and a look around today's neighborhoods show this. Many, perhaps most, children would be quite comfortable eating corn chips blowing up aliens as their collective BMI balloons far faster than their brains .

We're still their elders, we're still supposed to know better.

Looking around, though, I have my doubts.

 Photo of iPad baby from odeedoh here. Not sure who took the photo.


John T. Spencer said...

I sometimes get criticized within the tech communities for limiting screen time. My kids play on the iPad an hour a week on Saturdays. We watch a movie every few days. No ads. No extended computer time. I have a hunch the amount of screen time is higher than you would be comfortable with.

My kids are not digital natives. They're natives of Phoenix. They know the neighborhood. They know the seasons. They know the mud and the bugs and the world around them.

And they are still amazed by the rain.

I made a few people squirm when I suggested that Acceptable Use had to include a solid understanding of the on/off switch.

Sue VanHattum said...

My son is 10, and I think he's in front of screens way too much. But so am I (working on a book, mainly). And that makes it hard to control.

He also has crappy eating habits. He doesn't like complex stuff, so won't eat the amazing food I get from Three Stone Hearth, and I haven't been good about cooking enough veggies for him. I don't buy sweets, but he does (with his allowance).

I am so torn. Until he was 3, there was no screen time. Then there was one movie a week for years. Now he has an ipod that his cousin gave him, and I think he spends more than half his waking hours on it. Yuck! (The other half he's on the trampoline, biking, scootering, playing with cars or Playmobil, or maybe reading.)

I want to set good boundaries with both these things, but am not sure how.

Leslie said...

Dear John and Sue--you have a much more difficult job than Michael and I did. We didn't have cable, a VCR, or video games when our kids were really little, and then those things showed up only gradually. There was much less to limit, because there was much less.

No computers till partway into elementary school, no handheld anything, no phones. I don't envy parents swimming upstream against all that.

And yes, Michael's kids watched Sesame Street (in all honesty, it was the first and for a long time almost the only screen experience they had, at least for the older one--that and Mr. Rogers, who provided an important balance.)

doyle said...

Dear John,

It's your first line that rankles me--how can anyone criticize limits on a medium that alters our view of the world in unhealthy ways? How dare they!

I am no one to judge screen time--I have a terrible dopamine habit that craves jolts from Twitter, FB, and Google+.

I loved your Acceptable Use post. It makes me wonder what people are so afraid of.

[For the few of you unaware of John, he lives on the edge between high tech and Luddism, and writes about it, prolifically and well. His blog is well worth the trip.]

Dear Sue,

I think Leslie handled that as well as anyone can. I don't have an answer.

Dear Leslie,

Love you!

Lee said...

Last week someone's post about the solar flare reminded me that I used to be a big astronomy buff...always reading about it then spending nights outside viewing the stars. There were a lot of things I use to pursue and I knew them well. Now with information so readily available at the click of a mouse I don't spend much time researching anything in depth. Not to mention information overload! I spend way too much time reading the "news" and not really focusing on what is important. Nor do I read books nearly as much as I used to. Just this past weekend I decided to implement an "electronic free" weekend from now on (or for as long as I can manage;).

doyle said...

Dear Lee,

That sounds like a real good idea--I may join you!

Susan Eckert said...

An iPhone is a wonderful little device when you're at the DMV or the doctor's office with your child. (Angry Birds surely must give quite a dopamine rush.) And SpongeBob is a wonderful introduction to the marine world when you're trying to cook dinner or write a paper on what makes a good assessment. As a parent, I have been thankful for TV and smartphones many times.

It is very hard to tear them away sometimes but it's worth it. My kids always complain about having to go "look at the dumb birds" or go on a hike. But they always lose themselves in nature and in my mind (and hopefully theirs), it's a much richer experience holding a giant millipede than playing Wii. Tonight Julianne and I watched lightning bug sex, which led to a couple of humorous questions from an 8 yo girl but at least she's curious. :)

Anonymous said...

They complain. I lived through the teenage decade of complaint, and now my kids ("I will never ever go camping again.") go camping, hike, bike, swim, clean up the environment...
It is their job to complain. It is our job to be the parent or teacher, not the friend.

Sue VanHattum said...

@Anonymous: I agree. But I have trouble with that when I feel conflicted.

It's easy to be firm about chores, and to prohibit meanness & hitting (for example). But sugar and screentime are both things I think are ok in moderation. Finding a way to help my son set his own limits is my eventual goal.

I am trying to ban HFCS, but I didn't have a clear sense until recently how bad it was. A good video, directed at kids, explaining the dangers of HFCS would be a big help.

Maybe even a video explaining the dangers of screentime! (Is that an oxymoron, or hypocritical, or...?)