My recent column on the possible link between television and attention-deficit disorder (ADD, also known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ADHD) prompted a flood of mail.
The overwhelming majority of respondents, mostly parents of children so diagnosed, were not pleased. A few thought my hypothesis - recent research into brain development raises the possibility that significant TV-watching during preschool years can compromise the development of a sufficient attention span - had merit, but most thought I’d done a great disservice to ADD children and their parents.
Quite a few rejected the ADD/television hypothesis because their ADD-diagnosed children have never watched much television. I thought I made it clear that even if my hypothesis is correct, it wouldn’t explain all instances of the diagnosis. But it was obviously not clear enough for all concerned.
Some readers challenged me thusly: If TV “causes” ADD, then how is it that some children who watch TV a lot have no ADD symptoms? I acknowledge examples of this sort and speculate that, as is the case with a disease-causing microbe, some children are probably more resistant to the negative effects of TV-watching than others. In all likelihood, their resistance is due to other environmental/developmental factors that, in effect, “cancel” television’s harm in some significant way.
Other readers said their ADD-kids only watched programs like “Sesame Street” and “Electric Company” during their preschool years.
Again, the nature of the programming being watched is largely irrelevant. Almost all television programs are produced so no single image is on screen for more than a few seconds. A preschooler who watches but one hour of such programming a day is spending more time per week watching the “flicker” of TV than in any other single activity.
Not everyone disagreed. A retired Atlanta psychiatrist wrote, “It isn’t difficult to see that the highly wired, blazingly rapid images … on TV … mimic exactly the defective cognitive processing of an ADHD child.” He said his granddaughter’s symptoms improved considerably after her access to television was sharply reduced. My wife and I had a similar experience with our son Eric, and many parents have shared similar stories with me over the years.
This summer, I established fruitful dialogue with Edward Hallowell, author of “Driven to Distraction” (Pantheon) and other books on ADD. Most of my experiences with professionals who specialize in ADD have left me rather cynical, but Hallowell immediately impressed me as thoughtful and open-minded.
Acknowledging that the disorder is grossly overdiagnosed, he proposes a distinction between biologically based ADD and “pseudo-” or culturally induced ADD. Whereas the former affects 3 percent to 5 percent of the population, the latter, Hallowell speculates, affects 55 percent or more.
He wrote: “I trace the origin of pseudo-ADD to two main changes over the past 50 years. First, the explosion of electronic communications technology, especially TV and PCs … Second, the breakdown in what I call connectedness, … a gradual erosion in the forces that used to bind people to something larger than themselves.”
At present, biologically based ADD cannot be distinguished from the more ubiquitous culturally induced variety (assuming a distinction is valid) because there is no litmus test for the former. I maintain - and this is where Hallowell and I may differ - that the “pseudo-” strain may also have biological aspects. I base this on the fact that research has established that early environment affects not only the workings of the brain, but its biology.
One message featured in ABC’s $40 million advertising campaign, “TV is Good,” says, “Don’t Worry, You’ve Got Billions of Brain Cells.” That’s right. A young child’s brain does contain billions of cells, but it’s not so much the number of cells that matters, but how well connected - or “wired” - they become. And television, as is becoming increasingly apparent, does not help those connections develop.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Rosemond The Charlotte Observer
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