Over-exposure to media like a closed head injury


Rates of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been rising for the last two decades, reaching epidemic levels. ADHD grew by 3 percent a year between 1997 and 2006, and now affects 11 percent of all American children.

There are two common forms of treatment, usually combined: behavioural therapy and medication. The increasing prescription of meds, of course, has been a boon for big pharma. But the causes attention deficit disorders? The most direct answer: we don’t really know. But research indicates that it’s not directly linked to too much TV or screen time. (Though the cell phone link to brain cancer in children is a real concern.) 

The ADD–ADHD spectrum has a genetic component. If one parent has the disorder there’s a 50 percent chance their child will have it. There are other factors: low birth weight, brain injuries, exposure to lead, PCBs and agricultural chemicals such as the pesticides and herbicides that now taint most of our food supply.

So what is attention deficit syndrome exactly? It’s basically just what it says: trouble paying attention and trouble controlling impulsive behaviour. Which seems to describe something that affects most of us in our new wired and wifi world, whether we’re diagnosed with AD or not. Research from McKinsey & Company shows that 13- to 24-year-olds multitask up to 70 percent of the time, listening to music or watching TV while working online. Data also shows that 80 percent of business people multitask, checking email while in meetings or checking messages while driving.

Business thinker, Peter Drucker, saw this as a problem decades ago. In 1967 he wrote that leadership effectiveness requires large chunks of uninterrupted time, and suggests reducing interruptions, limiting phone calls, and reserving clear space in daily calendars. But kids today don’t have the option of limiting access to their calendars. Quite the opposite. Vancouver psychiatrist Shimi Kang cites research that shows 40 percent of kids are now sleep-deprived from overly busy schedules.

Along with the firehose of daily information aimed at us and our kids is a raging torrent of advertising. The result: more than two thirds of us are actively looking for ways of blocking advertising.

So is it just our kids or does our entire society have an attention deficit disorder? The answer is, we’re all suffering from information overload. It’s electronic, invasive and cumulative, combining TV, radio, social media, streaming video services, mall displays, digital billboards, dashboard electronics, mobile phones, tablets, Kindles, 24-hour newsfeeds and targeted-directly-to-you advertising.

What are we losing? Our human brains are designed to think through one task at a time, while paying attention to the rest of the world using peripheral senses that only intrude if there’s some kind of danger. Multitasking and sorting through the information coming at us every minute of the day creates a deficit. A deficit of attention. We don’t have enough time in the day to pay attention to each thing that wants our attention. And that includes our closest family members, the spouses and children and friends who often suffer from the lack of our attention, and become collateral damage. One could almost predict a link between the proliferation of electronic media and the rise in divorce rates.

Last year, the editor of Poetry Magazine, Don Share, said this about poetry: “A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward. They’re moving around and paying attention at every moment.”

And there’s the key: paying attention. That craving for attention to the moment helps explain the recent renewal of interest in poetry—and other reflective activities such as walking, reading, or just sitting on a beach looking at the clouds. 

The problem is, we’ve devoted to much personal mental bandwidth to keeping up with the exponentially expanding bandwidth of modern media. It’s unnatural, it’s toxic, it’s not good for us our our kids, and it disconnects us from our local, immediate environments.

Relocalizing our thinking and reflecting on our community is one reason why regional newspapers, which are rapidly going extinct, should be delivered, at no charge, to every middle and high school student, who should be given time in class to read it. Simply because we need to retrain ourselves to stop and reflect on where we’re at.

Or, we can keep overdosing ourselves on a digital diet,  and inevitably, epigenetically, rearrange our DNA in the process—making ADD the new norm for everyone.


Popular Posts