TV and video games and its relation with inattention and wellbeing: some thoughts

Television and video games are commonly seen as addictive and harmful when taken in larger doses. Parents and educators often question themselves about the right amount of stimulation that children receive when watching TV or playing video games. Teachers are often complaining about the volatility of attention and the short span attention, a characteristic of some children and individuals with attention deficits, that are believed to be linked to this new world of overstimulation and persistent connectedness to the digital world.

There are some really interesting points in this discussion that should make us think about the relation of attention deficits, its disorders and the contextual factors that embodies them.

First, attention deficits have to be taken into account concerning a particular background, frequently a task that the individual is trying to achieve, e.g., homework. We know that the longer periods of attention are hard, that being the reason why we usually make pauses during our work. However, attention deficits or alterations mean that the focus of attention is impossible to obtain or when achieved it's quickly lost. This leads the individual to lack commitment to the task at the hand and, this way, fail to execute.

Second, attention deficits have an intricate nature of the rest of cognitive and emotional systems. This means that the lack of attention can be derived by normal stimuli in the environment (e.g., disturbing peer in the classroom), in the self and consciousness (e.g., worry of failure) and/or in a disturbed sense of lack of homeostasis (e.g., as in ADHD, primarily hyperactive, the inability to control one's cognitive and behavioural sense of motion). In consequence, the sense of loss of control dictates a response.

Third, in the best case scenario, this will be reversed and the individual will be able to respond favourably, leading to the reasoning that makes the disconnection from the source of stimulation possible (e.g., the child turns the TV off), which in turn rewards the child with a sense of control over her actions and environment. It may also lead to an inner conflict that it is hard to resolve, on where the gratification of the immersive experience of the video game of the TV show is more enticing and prevalent than the voice of discipline and attention. This voice can be internal, eliciting an I-position (e.g., I as inattentive or I as bad student), or a position of an other (e.g., the voice of disapproval from the parent). However, it may be that this response is briefly considered in contrast with an alternative but in such a way that makes it almost irrelevant to the inner discussion, as it isn’t even valued as meaningful (e.g., I don’t give a sh*t about school, I do what I want, I always fail so what’s the point?).

Fourth, there is a sense of wholeness to our experience in our existential configuration that makes respond to an imbalance with a sense of action. The learning cycles about the experiences of inattention and the ability to respond according to what is expected (e.g., focus on homework, do the chores) or to fail in that regard, in the large configuration of one’s identity, are so powerful that affect not only the initial problem of inattention – and consequently all the discussion around TV and video games, for example – but, more importantly, the place of the individual in his world.

In an altered version of the CBT terms, the emotional, the cognitive and behavioural, consolidates solid beliefs in the individual, which in turn validate the assumptions that are made in the specific cases of inattention but, more importantly, the personal I-Self-O positions of identity.

The hardwired composite nature of our identities, in the intricate connections with the world, where our identities exist, makes TV and video consumption much more complex to evaluate. The question of how much TV and video games is too much is probably related to a very wide array of factors: parental norms, rules and expectations, children’s habits and routines, family harmony, children’s performance at school and their relations with the peer group, types of programs that are watched, specific health issues, such as eye strain, lack of exercise and obesity… Well, the factors are so varied that ultimately that they may include cultural norms and expectations, specific school norms and expectations, developmental stages…

You have noticed that my focus was on inattention, as it usually seen as one of the most relevant implications of too much TV and video games consumption. I would add internet use, of course. It is important, nonetheless, to present the broader and related perspective of this relation to wellbeing.

According to this study:

On the whole, after accounting for all of these factors, there were very few associations between electronic media use and wellbeing indicators. For girls, every additional hour they spent playing electronic games (either on consoles or on a computer) on weekdays was associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of being at risk for emotional problems – for example being unhappy or depressed, or worrying often. For both boys and girls, every extra hour of television watched on weekdays was associated with a small (1.2- to 1.3-fold) increase in the risk of having family problems – for example, not getting on well with parents, or being unhappy at home. A similar association was found for girls between weekend television viewing and being at risk of family problems. However, no associations were found between watching television or playing games and problems with peers, self-esteem or social functioning.

And as we defend, the relation is nuanced:

It may well be the case that families who watch lots of television are not providing as much support for young children’s wellbeing from an early stage – so the association with television or game use is more to do with poor family functioning than the media themselves. Furthermore, the results don’t tell us anything about what types of television or genres of games might have the strongest effects – presumably the content of such media is important, in that watching an hour of Postman Pat will have very different effects on a four-year-old’s wellbeing than watching an episode of Breaking Bad. And as the authors note, relying on subjective reports from parents alone might introduce some unknown biases in the data – “an objective measure of electronic media use or inclusion of teacher or child report of wellbeing may lead to different findings”, they note. So the results should be treated with a certain amount of caution, as they don’t tell us the whole story. Nevertheless, it’s a useful addition to a now-growing body of studies that are trying to provide a balanced, data-driven understanding of how modern technologies might affect childhood development.

Common sense is one of our most powerful tools and it is free. Parents are expected to regulate and supervise the consumption of TV, video games and the internet, as every immersive experience tends to glue the individual to a pleasurous context where immediate gratification occurs. Parental practices are, therefore, crucial to mediate a balance consumption of these contexts.

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