Junkfood Science: Weekend Woo: Digital age fears

January 06, 2007

Weekend Woo: Digital age fears

Babyboomers raised on television might argue that they grew up just fine, with their tasting and smelling faculties intact, but one professor in the news today believes otherwise.

Do Leave it to Beaver reruns, Sesame Street and reality TV really rot kids’ brains and lead to lethargy, obesity and an early grave, as he says? Such fears are popular today and many parents are being led to believe them but, as with most things that sound ominous and frightening, the evidence gives a very different picture.

But first the news:

Television kills, says top German psychiatrist

The German School in Jeddah will host a public lecture on January 14 by Manfred Spitzer, a world famous specialist in the study of cognitive neuroscience and psychopathology....Spitzer is also a musician, has a PhD in philosophy, writes a weekly column and has hosted TV programmes. Spitzer says he has found a direct correlation between watching excessive amounts of television and obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes.

“People who watch too much have little time for sport or movement of any kind,” he said. “They eat more in turn and that leads to them becoming overweight and dying earlier.” In his book, titled “Beware of the TV Screen,” Spitzer quantified the damage television inflicts on the mind. “Children who watch TV have narrow horizons,” he said.

According to Spitzer, television is responsible for the lethargy and diet-related deaths of 20,000 Germans a year.

“It reduces the plasticity of their brains which remain unstimulated and fail to develop properly,” he once told UK’s Telegraph newspaper. “Later they smell and taste things differently because their senses are warped and, as adults, go on to buy unhealthy foods, similar to those they have seen advertised on television.”

Where to start?

We’ll ignore the obvious woo and address a widespread fear. Professor Spitzer is not alone in blaming media for rising weights in children. Such concerns arise from the belief that “obesity” is all about calories and that sedentary behaviors cause weight gain. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the preponderance of quality studies have found no relationship between activity levels and the development of “obesity” in children. Even the American Heart Association’s 1996 Medical Scientific Statement on Obesity in Youth concurs and states that the evidence demonstrates that there is no difference between fat and lean children in their energy expenditures.

Researchers in the U.S. and UK, led by S. J. Marchall of the Department of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, San Diego State University, have analyzed 30 studies of media usage, activity and body fatness among children and young people, and found that less than 1% of the variance in body fatness can be explained by media use — numbers “too small to be of substantial clinical relevance.” Ninety-nine percent of fatness is explained by something other than television, video or computer usage, or physical activity!

It’s commonly believed that sedentary behavior and physical activity are two sides of the same coin, but the research shows that they have no bearing on each other, according to physical education instructor and researcher, Michael Gard of Charles Sturt University Bathurst, Australia. The kids who are the most active are also engaging in the most sedentary activities.

What might feel counter-intuitive, population studies have shown that activity levels have increased concurrently with the growth of media. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports based on data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, participation in regular physical activity actually increased among children during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, leveled off and since 1996 has steadily increased 1% a year.

Amidst the angst over the digital era, quiet indoor pursuits like reading, working on arts and craft projects, and playing the piano are never blamed for causing obesity, just media. As if there is something magically sinister about it.

It may seem that, with the proliferation of television and new digital gadgets, children must be spending more time sitting around playing with it all. But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that kids are not spending a larger chunk of time using electronic media. Their media exposure time was holding steady at 6.5 hours a day but they’re multi-tasking and doing their homework, playing a multiplayer online role playing game, talking on the phone, listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and IMing friends all at the same time. Tallying the time spent on each activity separately would exaggerate children’s sedentary hours.

Despite professor Spitzer’s concerns that television advertising is especially fattening, the Institute of Medicine’s recent report on advertising and children repeatedly states that the evidence is insufficient to claim a causal relationship from television advertising to fatness in children. No matter, with the variety of media options today, kids are spending less time watching television. According to Pauline M. Ippolito with the Bureau of Economics, Federal Trade Commission, their comprehensive analysis of all Neilsen programming found that children today are spending fewer minutes than in 1977 viewing television advertising. She presented the findings at a joint workshop of the FTC and Department of Health and Human Services in July, 2005. She added that since 1977, food ads on television are down 34% on kids shows and 50% on family shows. [Note: Claims of increased spending on advertising does not equate to more advertising, but reflects significant increases in TV ad rates since the 1970s.]

A paper released last September by the InfoSavvy Group, “Understanding Digital Children: Teaching & Learning in the New Digital Landscape,” offers a fascinating description of the science of what’s happening inside children’s brains, their cognitive development and learning capabilities as a result of today’s media. Conventional thinking among neuroscientists long believed that by the age of three the brain was hard-wired but over the past 20 years, new scanning techniques and neuroscience and neurobiological research have demonstrated that the brain is really highly adaptive (or “plastic”) and is constantly reorganizaing and restructuring itself in response to stimulation. The brain remains malleable this way throughout life.

“Teenagers’ brains aren’t getting bigger as they grow. The brain cells, called neurons, are simply rearranging, making new connections and pruning unnecessary ones to speed and reroute the flow of thought,” wrote authors Ian Jukes and Anita Dosaj. “So contrary to longstanding assumptions, the brain literally restructures neural pathways on an ongoing basis throughout our lives. It makes new cells, it creates new connections, it sets up new circuitry and, as a result, constantly creates new thinking patterns.”

Today’s digital bombardment with its complex video games, movies and television actually challenges the brains of young viewers to think more like adults, following intricate narratives, making quick decisions, contriving long-term strategies, roll playing and analyzing complex social networks, argues Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You. With a different perspective on pop culture, he says that despite its often dummied down subject matter, it gives a “cognitive workout” that teaches the same kind of skills that math problems and chess games impart. As a result, Digital Natives have become sophisticated thinkers and learners with enhanced skills such as parallel processing, graphics awareness and random access. Media is hardly preventing their brains from developing. In today’s techie world, most kids leave their parents in the dust.

To grownups who may share professor Spitzer’s fears, Jukes and Dosaj had, perhaps, the most insightful response of all:

Ever since the time of Socrates, parents have had trouble dealing with their children – it’s not that they’re deficient, it’s that they’re different. Every generation of adults sees new technology, the new thinking behind it, and the social changes it stirs as a threat to the rightful order of things: Plato warned (correctly) that reading would be the downfall of oral tradition and memory. And ever since then, every generation of teenagers has embraced the freedoms and possibilities wrought by new technologies in ways that shock the elders and break away from the way that things have traditionally done.

And there’s no evidence that that will ever change. :)

© Sandy Szwarc 2007

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