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An Attention Span - Your Child's Basic Foundation For Success in School and in Life


"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. The ability to mentally focus, attend, and sustain concentration is an internal process within the human brain-mind. Because it's an internal ability the human attention span has to be protected, nudged, and nurtured along in childhood and adolescence. The right ingredients from the external world will ensure the attention's span development. The wrong ingredients can hinder its development, and even extinguish it.


The wrong ingredients are too many hours in front of a flat, 2-D screen surface. 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."


Today, more researchers are coming to believe 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. Dimitri A. Christakis 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. He said that the fast-paced images of TV programming may over stimulate and permanently "rewire" the developing brain.


The extreme 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 hyperactive low brain centers, they eventually "take charge." Instead of the thinking cortex being the CEO of the brain's workings, the reptile function of impetuous reactions runs the show.


To understand how too much screen time is the basic wrong ingredient for growing an attention span, there are three important considerations.


First, visual images must be noticed. Do an experiment. In the evening with the lights low, put your head at an angle to the television. Wait for a commercial. Then try not to look. Try as hard as you can. What you soon find out is that it is virtually impossible not to look. The image changes activates the brain's "orienting response," discovered by Pavlov in 1927. We humans are programmed to look at changes or novelty-even in our peripheral vision. This can't be helped. We can't lose this instinct of our low brain function. It's an integral and important component of our survival mechanism. Therefore, colorful commercials, or images of sex and violence cannot be resisted. If they are there, we will look.


After visual images are noticed, they are remembered. Not always consciously remembered, but stored in our memories nevertheless. How this works is still a mystery for researchers. The huge affect advertising images have on purchasing decisions, for instance, is not even clearly understood. But it seems like once we see images, repeated very often, and associated with strong emotional appeal, those images become very powerful influencers of behaviors. A study, published in the Oct. 14, 2004 issue of the journal, Neuron, is the first to explore how cultural messages penetrate the human brain and shape personal preferences. Is there a direct route from the image to the action? Science writer, Sandra Blakeslee, writing in the New York Times tells us, "Some corporations have teamed up with neuroscientists to find out. Recent experiments in so-called neuro-marketing have explored reactions to movie trailers, choices about automobiles, the appeal of a pretty face and gut reactions to political campaign advertising, as well as the power of brand loyalty... (MRI's) are being used to shed light on brain mechanisms that play a central role in consumer behavior: circuits that underlie reward, decision making, motivation, emotions and the sense of self. Anything that is novel, researchers have found, grabs the brain's attention system by tapping directly into reward pathways. 'Being able to see how the brain responds to novelty and makes decisions is potentially a huge step forward for marketers,' said Tim McPartlin, a senior vice president of Lieberman Research Worldwide in Los Angeles." Corporations have always been a few decades ahead of the average person in understanding just how the human brain can be conditioned, mutated, or re-structured.


As the novel visual images get remembered, the brain naturally wants to seek out like visual images. In other words, the more images of sex and violence stored in the brain, the more the brain seeks images of sex and violence. And the less the brain wants to think, deliberate, ponder, evaluate, discern, question. The cerebral cortex can't get "a word in edgewise" when the low brain has been conditioned to seek quick images that titillate.


Since very few mental meanderings can occur without an operational attention span, it's quite imperative and urgent that parents truly understand the role that overuse and misuse of screen technologies play in shortchanging the attention span. Then they can turn their attention to those ingredients that work to grow an attention span:


1. Limit all screen time to one hour a day or less. 
This is in line with recommendations from many professionals. Do this for a month and observe the difference in your children yourself!


2. Provide mental challenges on an on-going basis. 
These can seem simple to adults but such parental choices as asking children questions and providing materials for imaginative, self-directed play, requires that children must attend. Anytime they make decisions, they are attending to the factors and practicing metacognition, inner thought processes that feed selective attention processes. A puzzle instead of a video game, a trip to an art museum instead of a movie, an aquarium for the child's bedroom instead of a television-balancing children's activities supports cerebral growth.


3. Open up some time for your child to experience his or her inner world. 
Not experiencing boredom doesn't serve our children well. Boredom is necessary downtime and integral to developing intrinsic motivation, along with an understanding of one's own creative processes. When concentrating and thinking slowly, ingenuity and inventiveness emerge. As poet Eve Merriam writes, "It takes a lot of slow to grow."


4. Choose screen content that has a slower pace. 
Look for TV programs, movies, and video games that mimic real-world rhythms more closely. The late Mr. Rogers and even Barney were laughed at for being so slow. Yet, this pace requires that children use their attention span. What could make more sense?


Youngsters can develop the mature attention spans they need for effective thinking and problem-solving in today's screen-machine world, given the time and space to do so. The normal course of human brain development naturally leads to a well-developed attention span. After all, our brain does know that an attention span is a fundamental human requirement for learning and creative achievement.




Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What to do About It, Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Sandra Blakeslee, "If Your Brain Has a 'Buy Button,' What Pushes It?" The New York Times, October 19, 2004. 
Dimitri Christakis, et. al., "Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children," Pediatrics, vol. 113, n. 4, April 4, 2004.


Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2010. All Rights Reserved.Gloria DeGaetano http://GloriaDeGaetano.com/ is the founder and CEO of The Parent Coaching Institute, (The PCI™), http://thepci.org the originator of the parent coaching profession.

An acclaimed keynote speaker, Gloria is a sought-after favorite for major national and international conferences because she is a recognized leader in family support, media/digital literacy who provides very specific and practical tools for parents to successfully navigate the stresses of modern day culture.

Ms. DeGaetano, a best-selling author, has written Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy; Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence (with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman), and manuals for parent professionals. Her latest book Parenting Well in a Media Age, has won the 2007 i-Parenting Media Award for excellence. Ms. DeGaetano's books and articles have been translated into Spanish, German, Danish, Romanian, Korean, Chinese, and Turkish.

Ms. DeGaetano's ideas and articles have appeared in numerous publications including McCall's Magazine, American Baby Magazine, The Boston Globe, the American Academy of Pediatrics Newsletter, and Catholic Faith and Family Magazine.


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