I can’t help but notice my decreasing attention span over the years in various activities I perform (not work of course…) but perhaps most prominent is the relationship with my TV. I have come to loathe commercials and subsequently record most programs and fast forward through them – usually overshooting back and forth until I have wasted the same amount of time as the commercial except my blood pressure is several points higher which I guess is kind of like a cardio workout. Even with movies or shows that aren’t completely engrossing has me reaching for my iPad or a magazine to carry me through the dry spots. Look around in society and see how often people are consulting their phones or devices and you can see this behavior is the new norm. Our phones ding and we have to respond immediately as if the meaning of life just appeared on screen but only for a moment.
While the current ever-changing technology certainly is an influence, there has been some research showing the impact Sesame Street had on young minds and how they process information. Not wanting to date myself but I was entranced watching Jim Henson’s Kermit the frog on the Ed Sullivan Show (OK, I just dated myself) who morphed into the same Sesame Street role in 1969. Sesame Street was constructed as a magazine show consisting of distinct autonomous segments of three minutes each. The rationale was that preschoolers did not have the attention span to handle longer segments and because the creators of the show understood the power of TV commercials, they created the format where each of the segments would sell one idea or address a single educational goal. It turned out that children don’t like commercials because they don’t tell a story but do like a mix of fantasy and reality as long as they can understand it. There were conversations in following years about how teachers struggled to compete with this rapid paced, machine gun type of education expectation in the classroom.
As the medium evolved, other philosophies came into play; the producers of another children’s show Blue’s Clues moved away from the fast-paced nature of Sesame Street to single story-driven episodes, often pausing to allow children to absorb an idea and staying away from the wordplay and humour that was part of Sesame Street. The new show idea surpassed the ratings of Sesame Street as the producers understood television is better used as a visual medium than verbal for educating children. As well, because of low budgets, they repeated episodes through the week and subsequently, they learned via ratings that children loved the repetition and watched it over and over. This may explain why on my last visit/adventure in babysitting a 3-year-old grandchild, I ended up watching Toy Story 3-1/2 times in a row.
Fast forward to today and the addictive quality of a screen is even more permeating than what producers and advertisers were beginning to perceive way back then. Now as far as the education piece, I’ll let you call that one…