Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 19, 2011

attention deficits and thick descriptions

A few days late, but this is an interesting article:

It’s an assertion I’ve heard many times when a child has attention problems. Sometimes parents make the same point about television: My child can sit and watch for hours — he can’t have A.D.H.D.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

This is a reminder of a point that I’ve been trying to make for a long time: we can't make useful generalizations about “screens.” You have to ask, “Which screens? What’s on the screens? Who’s using the screens? What would they be doing if they weren’t using these screens?” In the same way, we can't draw sweeping generalizations about whether social media are good or bad, whether they enable revolutions or make revolutions impossible. Screens, social media, computers, digital technologies of all sorts — they just aren’t “good” or “bad.” We need thick descriptions of our online lives, and right now the available descriptions are pretty thin.

That’s not surprising; online life is new, so the serious study of online life is (necessarily) newer. But I am craving richer, more detailed, more stringently controlled, thicker studies of how we live now.


  • Right [irony alert], we need exhaustive study to know the true, longitudinal effects of the decisions we make and the behaviors we adopt. We can't really know anything until we know it, and that takes considerable effort and hindsight. Meanwhile, sally forth!

  • You make an interesting point, especially for parents who limit "screen time" for their children. I have two very different online lives, the kind where I engage in games or celebrity gossip, for instance, and a very different kind where I'm reading black text on a white screen. When I read blogs or online periodicals, genuine content that engages that deep center of concentration.

    All screen time may be created equal, but some screens are more equal than others.

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