Does Watching TV Really Cause Short Attention Spans?

On the news, in the media, on commentary pages, and among friends, many of us hear the same mantras repeated. Call them conventional wisdom, call them common knowledge, call them what you will. But can you call them true? In November 2006, Steve Olson posted a blog entry titled "10 Things I wish I had Never Believed". In this post, he touched on such common beliefs as "money is the root of all evil" (the actual Bible verse says the love of money is the root of all evil; huge difference), "a job is the best way to earn money", and "school is the best place for kids to learn". That last one is particularly anchored into public belief. When my wife and I tell people that we plan on home schooling our children, even people who are highly educated often gasp in fear and shock.

In any case, the other night I was watching an episode of Cranky Geeks. John C. Dvorak had a panel on specifically to talk about video podcasting. While they talked about the appropriate length of a video podcast, the discussion inevitably came around to attention spans. Sure, most video podcasts or YouTube videos do best when under 10 minutes (Cranky Geeks runs about 30). The comment came up that television and computers have shortened our attention spans. I suddenly found myself wondering if this is really true. Although most people would automatically agree with the statement without any thought, I suddenly wondered how this conclusion was arrived at. Did a group of scientists take a group of latchkey children and a control group of Amish and observe them growing up in a controlled scientific study? Or is this statement merely conventional wisdom arrived at by societal observation with a little bit of wishful thinking because the blame for a perceived problem has to fall somewhere?

I’ve recently begun to study philosophy. Philosophy is a subject that I have always avoided primarily due to stereotypes. Seriously, how many of you, if I invited you to my church, would refuse because you have a stereotypical image of evangelical Christians? I had the same thing about philosophers. When I thought about philosophy, I always saw an aging hippy professor sitting in the lotus position going "It’s like we’re totally not really here, man. Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?" I also had the image of the 18 year old wasting daddy’s money on philosophy classes rather than a more "practical" subject. I’ve found those stereotypes to be exactly what a stereotype is: mostly wrong. I’m finding philosophy to be a vibrant and fascinating study applicable to all areas of life. I’m also learning that a philosopher is a professional thinker. A philosopher asks questions, often with child-like wonder. We often lose our wonder as we grow up. Philosophers often don’t have the answers, but their exploration of the questions can make for an interesting study. That’s all I will say for now as I have a long way to go in reading about philosophy, not to mention reading some of the "great" philosophers.

With this interest in philosophy, I would like to ask the question: does watching TV really cause short attention spans? Obviously, I have not been successful in getting a grant, much less a group of latchkey children and another group of Amish children set aside from birth (by the way, I love the Amish and Lancaster County, PA is one of my favorite places on Earth). All I have to go on is my own observation. Before I continue, let me lay one last bit of foundation.

In October, Newsweek ran a story titled Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness. One statement from that article which really stood out to me is about choice. The statement is below:

The trouble is, choice is not all it’s cracked up to be. Studies show that people like selecting from among maybe half a dozen kinds of pasta at the grocery store but find 27 choices overwhelming, leaving them chronically on edge that they could have chosen a better one than they did. And wants, which are nice to be able to afford, have a bad habit of becoming needs (iPod, anyone?), of which an advertising- and media-saturated culture create endless numbers. Satisfying needs brings less emotional well-being than satisfying wants.

OK, from my own experience and observation will come the rest of this post/essay. I was born in 1974. I’m a product of the original MTV generation. I can remember watching about 5 or 6 hours of TV on a school night as early as the age of 11 or 12. We lived in Germany from 1980 to 1985 and had only one English channel, AFRTS, and one radio station, but people in "the states" would send us video tapes which my brother and I watched endlessly. In 1986 and 1987, I would come home from school to watch GI Joe and Transformers, followed by Star Trek and shows like the Facts of Life in syndication on the Fox affiliate (Fox was brand new at the time). Prime time brought programming like the A-Team and MacGuyver among others. By high school I often had better things to do than watch TV, but I still made sure to catch my favorite shows like Star Trek, The Next Generation. In the Navy, my television watching dropped off dramatically, but picked up after I got married in 2001. Currently, my family does watch a lot of TV. My wife keeps PBS and Nickelodian on for the kids all day. We’ll often put on The Wiggles or Thomas the Tank Engine to keep the kids happy while we get things done. When I go to bed, I usually watch the History Channel, or Discovery Channel, or shows like Law and Order, or House. Lately, thanks to TV on DVD, and of course my WinTV and video iPod and programs like iPodifier, I can watch TV anytime and anywhere that I want. I’m just trying to establish that I have paid my dues in front of the television, and keep my membership active. I never really watched MTV though.

I do not believe, from my own experience and observation, that watching television decreases my attention span, nor the attention span of my children, whatever an acceptable attention span for two and three year old boys should be.

Apparently there is an attention span problem in our country, but if that attention span problem is not caused by TV, then what could be causing it? I’m obviously not a scientist or sociologist or psychologist, but I do have a blog, so that alone qualifies me to put forth a few observations on this subject. Here are some of the reasons that I suspect cause a short attention span:

  • Expectations set too high- seriously, to say that the attention span today is short we must have some kind of quantifiable data from times past. Did school children in ancient Babylon sit for eight hours on end (boys especially) through such exciting subjects as poetry and pottery? Honestly, I think a lot of complaints about attention spans are because we have our expectations set too high for ourselves and our nation’s school children. We’re trying to expect and force ourselves and our children to sit for long periods of time doing tasks that frankly aren’t all that interesting or exciting, or in many cases, meaningful. I used to think that I had a short attention span until I realized that like many other computer geeks, I had the ability to hyper-focus on some tedious tasks like playing video games or straightening out file system issues. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I was able to crank out while I was supposed to be working on a paper for one of my University of Phoenix classes.
  • One word: sugar. We can’t deny that the American diet consists of way too much sugar. I notice when I’m not eating very well that I can’t focus for anything. When I’m eating better, I have an easier time at work because my bloo
    d sugar levels aren’t crashing.
  • Another word: choices. There is a reason why web videos are short: because when we’re sitting at our computers, there are a lot of other things we could be doing so we’re not going to sit still for one thing. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my iPod. In fact, right now as I’m typing this I’m listening to Cyberspeak. I wouldn’t be willing to stop what I’m doing for an hour while I finish this podcast. Frankly, it’s not all that exciting, so I pick up a little bit here and there while I’m doing something else. I notice when I’m laying in bed late at night and I have no other choices I can sit through an hour long TV show. When I transcode that show to my iPod and I’m trying to watch it sitting at my computer, I tend to want to do other things. I have email to sort through and Google Reader feeds to read. When I have too many choices, I often can’t settle on just one or two and I float because no matter what I’m doing, I’m constantly afraid that I could be doing something "better". When I have fewer choices, I am able to sit still and focus better. This goes back to the blockquote earlier from Newsweek about how happiness doesn’t necessarily come from having too many choices.

I could probably keep going, but these are only observations. Critical thinking involves never taking anything you read or hear for granted. I’m sure I could turn on CNN or FoxNews and hear commentators say at least 10 times today that TV causes shorter attention spans. Rather than accepting that I’m asking questions, because my own experience doesn’t seem to match up to conventional wisdom. What about you, reader? Does TV shorten your attention span? If you believe it does, are you willing to cut down or cut out TV in order to regain an attention span?

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One Response

  1. […] questions so far have to do with should you really expect to get rich by winning the lottery, does watching TV really cause short attention spans, and is the Internet doing something to our brains besides making us think it’s doing […]

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