Adolescence in the age of electronic entertainment.

Excess electronic entertainment, wandering attention, and delayed maturity.

Posted Nov 29, 2009

"Why does my young adolescent have such wandering attention?" "Why is my 23-year-old taking so long to act grown up?"

Many parents wrestle with these questions, and as a counselor working with these families so do I. Sometimes I speculate about one common cause that may connect the two: the age of electronic entertainment in which young people live.

Why do I call it "the age?" Consider the following news report. If a recent Nielsen survey (see NYT, 10/2/09, p. B4) is to be believed, "children ages 2 to 5 spent nearly 25 hours a week watching television, the highest figure on record. They spent an additional seven weekly hours watching DVD's, playing video games, and watching TiVo-style time-shifted television."

Of course, this doesn't take into account recreational time spent on the computer, adolescents much more active in this virtual world than children.

I believe such a high investment of time and energy in elecronic entertainment can have problematic effects on a young peron's growth.

Start with the problem of WANDERING ATTENTION. Consider the electronic brain training that young children now receive from television, video and computer games, DVD's, movies and the like that hard wire eager minds to enjoy, adjust to, and come to need swiftly changing, sensational, high stimulating entertainment to satisfy their restive attention and fulfill their young lives.

Without it, young people soon feel at a loss, feel bored, unsettled, frustrated, aimless, and disconnected. Deprived of it, they can go through a kind of withdrawal, not knowing what to do with them selves. Rather than actively author their own intrinsic stimulation, they have come to passively depend on an extrinsic electronic source.

Human beings are not only creatures of habit, they are captives of habit. And the entertainment habits of young people are encouraged by a market place in which media aggressively compete for young people's attention by selling the most arresting (controversial, startling, violent, sexual) fare. Complicit in this influence is the role of parents who do the providing and permitting at home.

In the process, just as advertising shapes adult buying behavior, electronic entertainment shapes much of the psychological and physical mental development of today's youth.

A child's high distractibility makes it hard to get him to cooperate, comply, and maintain consistency of effort when his attention keeps slipping away. So many young people today are so restless to move on, have such a short attention span, are so hungry for new and exciting stimulation, that getting them to attend routine demands at home or in the classroom can be very challenging to do.

This human condition has even gotten so widespread that the psychological/medical/pharmaceutical consortium has officially recognized the problem as an official "disorder" - ADD and ADHD. Now a hugely profitable market niche has been created for therapeutic specialists and sellers of psycho-stimulant medications to help settle these young people down so they will be more tractable and concentrate on what they're told to do. Or at least to help parents and teachers have an easier time managing these inattentive and restless young people.

So what is going on? I believe one part (not all) of the answer may be that young people are paying an evolutionary price for the technological revolution we have created. The vast and varied offerings of electronic entertainment have deeply influenced their daily experience and personal growth since their very earliest years.

Sometimes it seems to me that the question is no longer, "Does my child have ADD or ADHD?" but, since virtually all children are to some degree affected, "How much ADD and ADHD does my child have?" What are we to do? Increasingly we are encouraged to give psycho-stimulant medication to counter the electronically induced characteristics we have culturally fostered.

The problems of shortened attention span, increased distractibility, and high need for stimulation among today's youth are not some market fabrication. They are real. And not only can they make parenting and teaching adolescents harder to do, they make it much more difficult for young people to accommodate to traditional demands for consistency of effort, concentration, and compliance that family and school make upon them.

At home, young people spend less time interacting with parents and more time in being electronically hooked up. As for school, there is an increasing cultural disconnect between the infinitely varied and exciting electronic world that has captured their interest and the sustained attention to material they do not select and find unexciting that is required by traditional classroom instruction.

When the 13-year-old complains, "it's hard to pay attention and sit still in class, it's so boring!" he's not lying. His tolerance for boredom is extremely low, and he longs for his electronic fix when he gets home from school.

At home, why don't parents limit electronic entertainment and diversify the young person's activity? Why would parents routinely allow their child or adolescent who is on psycho-stimulus medication for ADD or ADHD to view hours of high stimulation TV and DVD fare and play high stimulation video and computer games? Aren't parents just compounding the very problem for which they are medicating the young person? I believe they may be.

Perhaps the reason they do this is because electronic fare is so compelling and entertaining, so much a part of peer culture, that parents who limit it often face complaints and arguments, losing popularity with the son or daughter. Besides, at least it keeps an adolescent occupied, quiet, not bothering them, and at home. So young people learn to entertain themselves less and interact with their parents less.

As for parents, they can be as hooked on this electronic fare as their young people are, and so to question their child's TV viewing and computer playing habits could uncomfortably cause them to confront their own.

Now consider the problem of DELAYED MATURITY. Today's vast world of electronic entertainment offers virtually limitless possibilities for escape. Indeed we have created a culture of escape that for many young people is much more tempting to inhabit than dealing with the culture of engaging with demands of everyday reality.

To meet a challenging demand takes paying attention, self-discipline to work, thoughtful problem solving, capacity for persistence, tolerance for frustration, and learning from error. Escape requires none of this effort or hard experience. I believe engagement with challenge can help build brain capacity, while escape from challenge puts that building on hold.

Unfortunately, it is only through engagement with the demands and challenges of reality and not escape from them, that growth of maturity can develop. In fact, each experience of engagement that is mastered becomes one more step in growing up.

Hence another price for excessive electronic entertainment that young people can pay, in addition to wandering attention, can be the delayed development of maturity that today extends adolescence into the mid, even late twenties. (See 10/18/09 blog about "Arrested Development" and 4/26/09 blog about "Lack of College Readiness Responsibility.")

This is not discounting the communication and learning opportunities created by our entertaining electronic and computer age. After all many young people develop facility with the computer develops skills that will be marketable in the adult world of work. And enormous creative energy is required to produce all this engaging entertainment fare.

At issue is not trying to turn back the technological change that has created so much entertaining diversion. What is at issue for parents is to moderate this involvement so that children and young people also have adequate time to learn to entertain themselves through the pursuit of active interests, skill development, social interaction, self reflection, and creative play.

As I said at the beginning, all of this is speculation on my part, although based on observation counseling with families. What is not speculation, however, is the thirty plus hours a week of electronic entertainment that today's parents provide and permit to occupy their age 2 to 5-year-olds who are starting the formative process of growing up.

So this is what I have come to believe. Over-exposure to high stimulating electronic entertainment from an early age can splinter a child's capacity to attend to routine and uninteresting responsibilities at home and at school. In addition, by encouraging escape from instead of engagement with these unwelcome daily realities and hard challenges, undue reliance on this entertainment can delay young people's growth to maturity.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE"(Wiley, 2013.) Information at:  www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Rebel with a cause -- adolescent rebellion.