- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Kim Dahlem remembers an elementary school student diagnosed with attention deficit disorder who had to be escorted to class each morning because he was nonfunctional before his Ritalin took effect. But he’s not the only child who has difficulty concentrating, says Mrs. Dahlem, who is preschool special-education coordinator for Morgan County schools in Alabama and has worked in the education profession for 18 years.

“It’s harder for children to concentrate,” she says.

“Children have to be amused all the time,” said Lee Hausner, a clinical psychologist who served as senior psychologist for the Beverly Hills Unified School District for 16 years.

Many educators voice similar complaints. Not only are more and more children being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), but teachers say there is an overall decline in students’ ability to sit still and pay attention in class.

Why? TV-induced brain damage, say some scholars.

“We can say with confidence that excessive television viewing causes neurological damage,” says Gloria DeGaetano, a veteran teacher and chief executive officer of the Parent Coaching Institute LLC, an educational training organization based in Bellevue, Wash.

“TV watching causes the brain to slow down, producing a constant pattern of low-frequency brain waves consistent with ADD behavior,” says Ms. DeGaetano, author of several books on media and parenting. “Television viewing may be the number one culprit of the cause of ADD.”

The tendency toward “quick-cut” editing — in which scenes and images shift rapidly — makes modern TV shows more stimulating.

“Watch a television show today and look at how the images have to change to keep a child’s attention,” says Mrs. Hausner.

And these days, it’s harder for the educational system to keep up, as teachers work to adapt teaching methods for children who just can’t sit still.

Mrs. Dahlem has seen the traditional classroom — with its straight rows of desks — evolve to the “cooperative teaching” method, where children in groups of four and five work together to complete a certain project.

“And I would certainly say that the decrease in the ability to concentrate has played a role in why this method is used,” says Mrs. Dahlem. “The classroom has changed from straight desk lines to table-top work.”

The number of children diagnosed with ADD has risen sharply in recent years. One national survey of physician diagnoses in the office practice revealed a 100 percent increase in diagnoses from 1990 to 1993, from approximately 1 million to 2 million cases.

The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines ADD as “a persistent and frequent pattern of developmentally inappropriate inattention and impulsivity, with or without hyperactivity,” marked by signs of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.

Some educators and researchers warn that America is facing an epidemic of declining attention. But David Rabiner, senior research scientist at Duke University, says it is uncertain whether the increase of ADD reflects a real epidemic.

“It’s certainly the case that more children have been diagnosed [with ADD] and treated now than before,” says Mr. Rabiner. “But whether that reflects an actual increase in behavior or just general awareness of the condition is uncertain.”

However, Mr. Rabiner believes that there are a number of children with ADD who have yet to be diagnosed. He cites a recent epidemiological study — in which he participated — that found that 39 percent of children at one North Carolina school met the study case criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but had not been diagnosed prior to the study. Overall, there was an estimated prevalence of ADHD in 16 percent of the students who participated.

The possible role of television in causing ADD isn’t good news in a culture where, some studies say, the average child spends 6 hours and 32 minutes a day in front of a TV screen.

Ms. DeGaetano said the fast-moving images on a TV screen upsets the low-brain area and the “child’s nervous system is constantly being jerked, like a puppet on a string, to look at that image.” Overarousing of the low-brain area makes a child hypervigilant, the Washington state educator says.

But what if children cry foul play when parents try to turn the boob tube off? Some children say they study better with the TV on. After all, some studies have found the so-called “Mozart effect,” in which listening to music improves intellectual functioning. But that doesn’t work with TV, Ms. DeGaetano warns.

“The visually moving image will hook the orienting response in a way that background music won’t,” she says.

Children must practice concentration in “self-directed activities,” Ms. DeGaetano says.

The good news is that scholars agree that concentration can be cultivated, and list a number of practical steps to help children develop these crucial life skills.

Mrs. Hausner suggests limiting a child’s TV-viewing time and encourages playing card games and other games that require concentration. She also pushes reading, and is pleased that children’s books such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series are inspiring children to read again.

Ms. DeGaetano recalls one physician friend who, since she began recommending that all potential ADD patients turn off all screens for two weeks and return for evaluation, has diagnosed 50 percent less ADD.

Ms. DeGaetano recommends a decrease of TV-viewing time, even if it is only 15 minutes less a day. She encourages families to eat dinner three to four times a week with the TV turned off, forcing children to concentrate on interaction with adults. Take children to a play or a puppet theater, she suggests.

Scholars warn of the effect of raising a generation of children who can’t sit still or concentrate.

“You’re not going to find achievers in a society where people can’t concentrate,” says Mrs. Hausner, noting that a poor education is often the result of attention difficulties.

But Ms. DeGaetano puts a more political spin on the necessity of good attention skills.

“Democracy depends on a middle class that is literate and asking questions,” she says.

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