You can’t switch the brain off


February 19, 2009 12:00am

Entertainment is always educating, says Harvard Medical School associate professor of pediatrics, Dr Michael Rich. He founded the Centre on Media and Child Health in the US. He says the best way to educate is to entertain because people learn best when they are relaxed. Children are still learning when they turn on the TV or the iPod, or the computer – you can’t switch the brain off.

“The level of exposure all of us have to media now really makes media an environmental health issue. It is the environment in which kids are growing up. It is the environment that is influencing the way they grow up. So let’s recognise and accept that.”
* Adolescence 
* Responsible media
* Junk media
* Happy slapping
* Multi-tasking
* Random violence and teens
* Teen + media = Identity
* Barack Obama: turn off the TV
* Happy violence 


Dr Rich, who became a medical doctor after spending a decade working in Hollywood as a script doctor and director, believes the media is a powerful tool – like a shovel.

“You can smash someone over the head with it or you can dig up a field and plant it,” Dr Rich says. “The work we do is focused on how do we, in context of accepting that media is here to stay, how do we identify those aspects of media that are pro-health and pro-brain development and those aspects that may work against these things.

Entertainment is always educating
 audio. (to come)

“I think there are loads and loads of people out there who are still saying throw the television out the window. That time has past. We learn a lot of stuff about how to be in the world from the media we use.

“We don’t have any classes in how to get to know somebody, how to connect with somebody, how to kiss them for the first time. And let’s not deny that, let’s acknowledge and embrace it, and use it in a proactive way to create a kind of world and people we want to live in that world with.”

“The problem is we get caught up in this education versus entertainment dichotomy. Part of the reason that the media has sneaked up behind us before we even noticed it is that we have decided that the television is something you turn on when you’re tired at the end of the day and you’re tired and it’s a way of diverting, distracting and relaxing.

“We’ve drawn this distinction that you go to school you learn all the important stuff at school and then you come home and magically turn off your brain and entertain yourself and that you’re no longer being educated.
“But the fact of the matter is that education that is more entertaining is usually more effective than stuff that bores the hell out of kids and visa versa entertainment is always educating.

TV hours audio – (to come)

“Kids in particular are just soaking up what the world is like what they’re like how they are supposed to behave in the world from television, just as much as they do from learning civics or whatever.
Relationships, psychology any of these things, they are learning all the time.
“My view is that instead of changing the senders through legislation or restrictions or whatever, we change the receivers.
“We break down this false preconception we have as consumers of media that entertainment is fun and relaxing and, “Oh damn it, I have to do some education’.
“What is the effect of this environment on developing children and to all of us?

Result plays out in adolescence audio (to come)

“Many of the health outcomes associated with media exposure play themselves out in adolescence, Dr Rich says.

“The kids who start getting fat when they’re infants end up with diabetes when they’re teenagers or the kids who are playing violent video games when they’re four end up assaulting someone as an adolescent.

“So in some ways my clinical population that where a lot of these things come to fruition. It is the environment in which kids are growing up. It is the environment that is influencing the way they grow up. So let’s recognise and accept that.

“The level of exposure all of us have to media today really makes media an environmental health issue. Let’s actively chose if those are things we want. We’re not even talking about education as much as you’re talking about, ‘how am I different?’

“If more hours equals more overweight: Do I want that? How do I fix it? Do I cut down the hours? Do I fast forward through commercials?
“Media are arguably the most powerful and universal environmental influence on kids health and development now because your income and education don’t protect you.

“It affects the underprivileged and over-privileged kids and we need to pay attention to it. Do good things with it. Let’s not use it blindly because it’s fun.”

Does your automobile kill people? audio

Most people have grown up watching more television and consuming more media than is recommended by medical guidelines. Has harm been done?

“Certainly there’s been harm done. Can we say that it’s solely the effect of media, of course not,” Dr Rich says. “These are complex cultural changes.

“Can we say that media use contributes to it I think with fair certitude that media use contributes to some component of most of the outcomes of concern. We can’t tell which fat cells result of watching television.

“Good medical evidence shows that kids who spend more time in front of screens tend to be overweight and are at greater risk of getting diabetes.

“Five decades of evidence indicates that some kids who watch violent media have increases in violent thoughts and behaviours. Most kids are desensitized and many kids have increased levels of anxiety and fear.

“Often these discussions get hung up sometimes intentionally by apologists for all media all the time around the idea of causality.

“Causality is extraordinarily difficult to prove.

There is a dose-response relationship between the number of hours of TV watched and the percentage of children with weight problems or diabetes.

“You just see it step up with each hour from zero to two, right up to five or more – the numbers go up.

Optimise benefits and reduce risk with media literacy
Junk media

“My ugly truth is that I was a film maker for 12 years before I had a midlife crisis and went to medical school,” he says. “I am a media maker, I still make films and I love films and I love media.

“So my approach really is to say let’s bring the same level of health research and evidence-base to bare on our choices around using media.
“Just like the choice we have about how to nourish ourselves we can choose wisely what we put into our heads, just as we try to chose wisely what we put into our bodies.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to watch the equivalent of junk food once in a while. But it also means we’re not going to do it three meals a day.

“Instead of values-based argument about morality or immorality or what’s right and wrong, let’s have it be about how do these media affect us and let’s not censor or restrict the media so much as actively use media that change us in ways that we want to be changed – accepting that the media are always going to be there and we’re always going to be changed in one way or another by them.

Happy slapping versus conscious use and consumption of media
Consciously use media

“I think that folks are doing wonderful work because they are looking at ways of using these media can really optimise what we know what we do and how humane we are, what good citizens of the world we are.

“But this is active, conscious use of the media. This is very different than the way that most young people use media.

“There’s something very different about what he’s doing and a kid surfing the net for porn or texting their friends, or happy slapping.

“All of these are made capable by the media. So one of the things I often say is that part of the problem with these value-based judgements is that they finally come down to someone saying turn off the TV, turn off the internet, these are evil things.

“I think we have to recognise the fact that the young people what we call digital natives and old guys like me are digital immigrants.

“They grew up with the internet, they grew up with texting, they grew up with a lot of the things that, while we can become very capable of, it’s really a second language for us. You don’t think in that language.

“Media are not inherently malignant, nor are they inherently benign, we confer the valance on them by what we do with them.
“There’s nothing inherently bad about television and television has done wonderful things.

“Witness what Sesame Street has done around the world.
“But television can also cause great harm if some kid sits around watching 16 hours of television a day and eating junk food.

Context matters – but does it get lost in the mix of texting, gaming, listening, watching and chatting at the same time.


One of the big unanswered questions about multi-tasking – surfing the net, watching TV and texting at the same time – is how it affects performance, retention of information, quality of work and possibly free will.

“One of the things we don’t know is does it mean they are receiving on multiple channels or rapidly toggling between things and is the quality of attention and retention the same as if you are focusing on it solely.”
Research shows that the speed and quality of homework deteriorates when students listen to music with words they understand – it actually improves with Italian opera or music without words.

Researchers, such as Dr Rich, suspect that multi-tasking may reduce a person’s ability to use conscious, critical viewing as a defence mechanism against the effects of violence in the media.

“Does one’s ability to protect oneself disappear while you are multi-tasking?

Is the effect of watching violent media amplified because you’re not paying enough attention to put it into context, or is it diluted because you’re not paying as much attention to it?

The other question researchers are looking at is how to identify the kids who are vulnerable to the effects of violent media.

“What we don’t know is how to identify these kids in advance,” Dr Rich says. “For the 100 kids who are playing violent video games which ones are at the highest risk?

“That’s very, very fine-tuned stuff. We’re probably a research generation away from doing that. First we have to really identify those features of the media and the receiver of the media to identify the problem.”

Research comparing Japanese media violence and violence in American media shows that context matters.
Japanese media is extremely violent – but Japanese society is not, why? Dr Rich asks.

“It’s not just the presence or absence of violence – it’s about meaning. What is the meaning and the context of violence? Violence in Japanese media is predominantly perpetrated by bad guys.

“You see people you care about being hurt and suffering the outcomes of violence. In American media it’s by good guys to prevail against the bad guys.

“Some have called US violence “happy violence” because you are happy that Clint Eastwood or John Wayne blew away the bad guys, but don’t show any of the suffering associated with it.

“You often won’t see blood even though many people have died in the last 60 minutes of TV. It’s a logical, if perverse and result of concept of the lone cowboy going out and taming the west.

“Our entire history is one of using violence to subjugate people and take away stuff and prevail.

“I think that’s a whole cultural thing but culture feeds entertainment and entertainment feeds the culture.”

In his former life as a film maker, Dr Rich worked as assistant director to Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa who made iconic films such as the Oscar-nominated Seventh Samurai. Dr Rich says the violent movie is perhaps the best anti-war movie ever made.

“There is a difference between that and I know what you did last summer,” he says. “While it shows violence it also shows that that violence diminishes both the victim and the perpetrator of that violence.”

From script doctor to Mediatrician Happy violence

“My time with Kurosawa in Japan reinforced my relatively naïve view that film could be a force for changing hearts and minds in positive ways and when I came back to Hollywood I realised I would never make a living with that attitude,” Dr Rich says.

He couldn’t raise the money for films he wanted to make and was forced to produce disposable entertainment to pay the bills.

“As I got older I said I wanted my life to mean a little more than that,” Dr Rich says. “In film my goal was to change millions of hearts and minds simultaneously, in medicine even if I can’t do it with my research and educational work, I can do it on a one to one basis in the clinic. I can get a child out of pain. I can help someone through a struggle with substance abuse.

“I can change person by person, problem by problem, so that at the end of the day I can say that I did something good today, even if I just gave antibiotics to a kid with an ear infection.”

Random violence and teenagers. Don’t you have a brain?

Dr Rich says kids who end up committing random acts of violence are consistently stunned by the fact that people actually died.

“It’s not just a matter of the kid not having experience of the kid being psychologically unbalanced to begin with as the fact that his brain literally is not at a place where he can fully think through the implications of that behaviour.

“One of the things that we forget or that we didn’t know until relatively recently is that the human brain develops well into the mid- 20s.

“And the part of the brain that develops last is executive function, in the frontal lobe, impulse control. It’s future thinking.
“It’s what we used to call the superego or conscience.

“We have MRI evidence that those parts of a brain aren’t fully functional. That circuitry hasn’t been established yet. A 15-year-old kid who sits in an arcade playing a first-person shooter video game and then picks up a gun and starts shooting in his school really doesn’t have the circuitry in place.

“A parent a few weeks ago came in with his son who had totalled the car. His son is there, he’s there and he’s screaming at his kid: ‘Don’t you have a brain?’

“And I say, ‘actually no he doesn’t. Let me tell you why’. There’s this eureka moment for both dad and kid.

“If you were making an automobile, sales is not the only item of interest, it’s also does this automobile kill people.”

So why should box office be the entertainment media’s only criteria for success? Dr Rich says.
“There are risks involved. “We really need to add social outcomes to the bottom line of interest.”

“Sesame Street in the 60s was a social movement as much as an educational one. It was saying that underprivileged kids should have equal access to someone saying ABC one two three to them – the same as those who were lucky enough to go to preschool. We need the equivalent of that today.

“We will probably have 10 percent who get totally stuck, 10 percent who soar and 80 percent who muddle through. Bit by bit we will see what’s successful and we will try to figure out how to bring that to more people.
“While the vast majority will never get to the level where the people that soar do if they can get 50 – 60 percent of that, we are moving the centre and that’s what’s ultimately important.”

Barack Obama: Switch off the TV

During his election campaign speeches, the new American president famously told people to “turn off the television and do your homework”. Dr Rich served with Barack Obama on a committee appointed to examine the relationship between sexual behaviour and the media – when Obama was still just a Senator. But he has too many more urgent issues, including two wars and a financial crisis, to deal with before he may find time for issues such as children and the media.

“Here’s a good example of someone who has lived the life of the mind and has learned a lot not just from history but from art and culture and is trying to bring that stuff to bear on real life,” Dr Rich says. “Being aware of other cultures is part of the richness he brings to the job.

“I’m proud to have a president who is smart and educated and caring and has a clue about the real world, we’ve been in the dark ages too long. We have been an anti-culture culture for a long time.

“For the past eight years, we have been an anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual culture as well, which has damaged us internally as well as our standing in the world.”

Teenagers use media to define their identity.
Teenagers and media

“Since time immemorial, parents don’t like the media their kids choose,” Dr Rich says. “If it’s not rock n roll, it’s punk rock, if it’s not hip hop, it’s fashions you wear, that’s part of the buzz from choosing stuff, to say: ‘I’m not my parents and not only that I can piss my parents off’.
“When kids are in adolescence their moods, their clothes and their media change minute to minute, hour to hour.

“They experience, they try things out and then they select portions of things that go into the mosaic that eventually becomes them.

“You see a kid who’s a punk rocker one week and a geek the next and a jock the next, not because they have no direction but because they’re trying things on, they’re going through the menu.

“When they’re 10 and 11 and 12 years old they’re all listening to the same music and watching the same TV show.

“But by the time they’re 18 or 19, they’ve differentiated into certain types of music, certain types movies they like, that’s part of their growing individual personality and perspective on the world.

“This is another really good reason not to deprive them of media or to say you can’t do that or that’s bad for you.

“Recognise that is part of the trying on process that they do through adolescence that also includes other potentially dangerous like drinking or smoking weed or taking risks going down to the quarry and jumping off into the water.”


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