Most responsible parents seem concerned about the television viewing habits of their children. The concerns usually seem to be centered around the sexually explicit and the gratuitously violent. Also of concern are the cartoons that seem to exist only to sell a product. These often seem like feature-length and poorly animated advertisements.
Teachers in our schools and colleges are noticing another student characteristic that many assume might be the effect of an unsatiated television appetite. Students seem to have short attention spans when dealing with difficult assignments.A short attention span is not a new phenomenon. Children enter kindergarten with an energy level that requires a change of activities about four times each hour. These kids want to explore everything at once. This energy doesn't persist as older students seem lethargic and expect to be entertained. To many, learning becomes a passive actvity rather than an active activity.
What is somewhat new is that some students entering college do not seem to have lengthened their attention span much when confronted with difficult assignments. Perhaps these students are used to being entertained in 30- to 60-minute segments. On television, the most bizarre murder or drug case is resolved in 30 minutes minus commercials.
Doesn't this set a pattern for life's other complex problems? Surely if murders can be resolved in 30 minutes, writing a 10-page term paper shouldn't take much longer. Since students read less, they are not practiced at the art of returning frequently to the same problem. The ability to revisit a challenging problem is central to academic progress. It is a key ingredient in the creative endeavor.
Each quarter I ask college students in composition classes at Snow College to write the names of any books they have read in the last year that they chose to read. I ask them to exclude any book required by a teacher. For three years that I have asked this question, I have not had one freshman English class where more than half of the students have read more than one elective book in a year. In fairness to the deceptive nature of averages, a minority of students are way above the mean. This quarter I have in one class a student who listed 41 books on the survey form, three who listed more than 30 books, and three who listed more than 20. Imagine how many have read no elective books in order to make an average so low. It isn't hard to predict who will earn the `A' grades in this class.
Relevant to the reading survey, but not the attention span point, is the recurring fact that surfaces on a survey regarding magazine and newspaper reading. In no class in the past three years have more than half the students read more than one magazine a month or read a newspaper more than once each week.
This discouraging bit of data points to an uninformed student body that also has a short attention span.
Part of the enjoyment of reading is that we can return frequently to a challenging problem or entertaining story. Students who learn to revisit a problem frequently will continue to excel in our educational system. Perhaps we should be as concerned about the study habits that may be developed by chronic TV viewers as we are about the possibility that TV violence can desensitize people to real violence and that the sexually explicit often teaches that people are objects to be exploited. It seems that encouraging longer study sessions and shorter TV sessions for children will help them be successful in school as well as protect them from the effects of TV violence and sex.