Virtuality

 By M.K. Styllinski

“There is a new world order and our children are carrying it around in their pockets.”

Beeban Kidron


“There is in every child at every stage a new miracle of vigorous unfolding.” So, said the psychologist Erik Erickson. This extraordinary neurological development used to be facilitated and encouraged by the art of storytelling which allowed archetypes and mythological motifs to be gently assimilated into the mind of the child, so that this process could begin from an emotionally nourished foundation. Television as a primary tool of the advertiser helped to replace this deeply-rooted tradition.

A study conducted by the cable television industry in February 1996 found that 57 per cent of television programmes contain “psychologically harmful” violence. The findings, the largest profiling of its kind, were taken from over 2,500 hours of television programming, carefully tracked and analysed. These research findings did not necessarily suggest that children could act more violently but that it could contribute to conditions whereby violence is seen as a normal part of life. By the age of 18, the average American child will have seen 200,000 murders on television [1] and since there is at least ten times as much crime on television and increasingly the internet as there is in the real world, this helps to create a rather skewed picture of the expectations of what life has to offer. [2]

By the time 2013 came around peer-reviewed studies were finding further negative effects of overexposure to television. A study undertaken by the University of Montreal, Canada, by Linda S. Pagani, Caroline Fitzpatrick & Tracie A. Barnett was published in Pediatric Research and the scientific journal Nature. The report entitled: ‘Early childhood television viewing and kindergarten entry readiness’ amassed data from a prospective longitudinal cohort of 991 girls and 1,006 boys and was analysed for the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. The parent-reported data was collected from weekly hours of tele-viewing starting at about 2 and half years of age. Children were then scored “… on direct child assessments of vocabulary, mathematical knowledge, and motor skills, as well as kindergarten teacher reports of socio-emotional functioning…”

The research team’s results showed that watching television at 2.5 years: “… were associated with subsequent decreases in vocabulary and math skills, classroom engagement (which is largely determined by attention skills), victimization by classmates, and physical prowess at kindergarten.” The conclusions further suggested: “… the need for better parental awareness and compliance with existing viewing recommendations put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).”

Childhood obesity, apathy, passivity, compliance, earlier sexual activity, attention deficit, impaired cognitive ability, hyperactivity, depression and aggression are all increasing in children. Television is could well be contributing to this global malaise. [3] It is not difficult to see why the child’s ability to actually learn is impaired. It is not the quantity of programmes that is at fault, but the quality. Given that the quality of television is tied to the market place, then it stands to reason that television will project these ways of being straight into the waiting brains of the young. Children aged 6 to 8 now respond to the image of a television as alcoholics do to images of drink. [4]

Worldskin-01

World Skin (1997), Maurice Benayoun‘s virtual reality interactive installation | (wikipedia)

Though a contributory factor, it is not the content of the programming that is doing the damage. The child’s brain is under attack from a deluge of images at the precise time that the mind/brain matrix is attempting to build neural fields that are healthy and stable, with images sourced from within rather than implanted by negative anxiety and adrenalin-drenched images from without. Quick camera switches, rapid image movement, computer generated objects, computer generated morphing and other technological stimuli are called “jolts” or “technical events” which induce the hormonal “fight or flight” response  together with the accompanying adrenal rush. [5] It is an addictive habit that forces the mind to latch onto firm ground that is forever being snatched away. This mind/body addiction means a near catatonic state; the glassy-eyed child fixed to the induction of alpha waves, ensures a hypnotizing effect that is most damaging to the neural circuits still being formed in small children. With these artificial images comes a habitually false sense of reality which becomes hardwired as author and scientist Joseph Chiltern Pearce explains:

Television feeds both the stimulus and response into the infant-child’s brain as a single-paired effect and herein lays the danger. Television floods the brain with a counterfeit of the response of the brain is supposed to learn to make to the stimuli of words or music. As a result much structural coupling between mind and environment is eliminated; few metaphoric images develop; few higher cortical areas of the brain are called into play; few, if any symbolic structures develop. [6]

Divorced from a measured and contextual response, the media plays its part in shovelling on fear and insecurity, pumping international horrors into our living rooms and already tired minds. There is always a variety of ways that consumer culture can allow you to buy back that security, however fleeting. Instinctual sex and violence ensures a “dumbed down” populace while ensuring ratings increases more of the same. In other words:

Since there is no way to stop the images, one merely gives over to them. More than this, one has to clear all channels of reception to allow them in more cleanly. Thinking only gets in the way.” […]  Every advertiser, for example, knows that before you can convince anyone of anything, you shatter their existing mental set and then restructure awareness along lines which are useful to you. You do this with a few very simple techniques like fast-moving images, jumping among attention focuses, and switching moods… [7] [Emphasis mine]

Our potential brain becomes imprisoned by the lower limbic brain and is sedated by the habitual and familiar: it is safe, comfortable, passive and devoid of the subtle nuances of creativity. Drop in doses of random violence and meaningless sex into the pliable mind of the child and a progressive normalisation of a pathological world view begins to take place. The child’s highly emotional mind ensures an easy state for conditioning. It is literally contoured towards states of acceptance. Babies and toddlers are unconsciously shocked into submission and programmed into mediocrity even before they can rationalize and conceptualise. Whether they will be able to think critically and discern truth from fiction later in life in combination with other environmental factors, is the key question.

The mass programming of movies, magazines, gaming and the integration of the internet and T.V. cannot by themselves, be considered threatening to the psychology of children and young adults. It is unlikely for example, that playing extremely violent, hyper-realistic, computer games such as Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat is going to cause irreversible damage if they played occasionally. However, taken together and with the emphasis on the type of content being absorbed, one can make such a statement with assurance. At the age children begin to play video games they have not sufficiently developed the ability to distinguish between what is reality and what is not. These forms of mind stimulation make sure that, as adults, our focus lies in the realm of subjectivity rather than objectivity while all the time we believe the reverse.

The average American absorbs 34 GB of information a day, though half of it is obtained from playing video games. [8] It is little wonder that such games are coming under repeated suspicion when we read the following reviews from online gaming sites: “Hit man: Blood Money delivers the most brutal and realistic simulation of life as the world’s deadliest assassin.” In this game you must eliminate your opponents using a variety of weapons and killing techniques. One scene depicts a basement shootout where several busty, bronzed, bikini-clad maidens must be summarily blown away to progress to the next level. In the opening start-page one can see the hit man holding one of these aforementioned women by the throat with the implication that he intends to use her as a shield. You can imagine what follows.

Another game describes a futuristic battle where: “…three nations with opposing political views have erupted in an all-out war. From the cockpit of a giant metal ‘HOUND’, you must power your tower of heavy artillery through giant war zones while backing five others on your squad and dodging the firepower of six other live players via Xbox Live.” And further: “In Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter you can play as a Ghost, the best trained and equipped soldier the US Army has to offer. The year is 2013 and an insurgency has broken out in Mexico City, and it is your job to infiltrate the city and attempt to restore order.” That of course, means wiping out as many folks as you can. Or if a more gory enterprise is more to your taste: “Ninety-Nine Nights is a pure hack-and-slasher, brought to you by both Mizuguchi’s Q!” There is no limit to the number of weapons you can conjure and use nor the amount and variety of people you can kill. No irritating shades of grey here.

What about some good old fashioned propaganda? You need not look far for a double helping of “fun” in the guise of FA-18 Operation Desert Storm where, as an intrepid US pilot in the Allied Coalition, you must fly your FA-18 Hornet across enemy lines to bring down Iraqi forces for the ultimate glory that was Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf war. Then there is Conflict: Desert Storm II Back to Baghdad where one on-line reviewer seemed to epitomize the dissociation involved with the reality of war versus the de-sensitization of real life:

“… there’s one thing that makes Conflict Desert Storm so engaging, and that’s the feeling you get when you’re all alone, your companions’ dead bodies scattered all around you, hiding behind a couple of clay pots to avoid the tank that’s just feet away. Finding yourself in this position just illustrates the sense of loneliness on the battle-field as you have no one to watch your back and success from this point becomes even more rewarding. The fine line is, that Conflict Desert Storm is simply better than any other war game that I’ve ever played and well worth the 10 quid that I paid for it…”

One wonders what the dead US soldiers and the millions of dead and mutilated Iraqi civilians would say to such “entertainment.” Such is the price of suffering that is reduced to teenage computer games and a “ten quid” tension ride.

Is there really such a difference between the programming of “Shock and Awe” pop video coverage courtesy of Fox T.V. and the gaming consoles in most American and European homes? If you were thinking that “Shock and Awe” sounded like a perfect computer game title then it will come as no surprise that the company’s US computer game office asked the Patent Office to let them register the words as a trademark. Sony backed down from plans to use the phrase as a title for its game about the war with Iraq due to customer and gamers distaste at such a move, especially as the patent was applied for only one day after the war started.

The studies that found violent video games had long-term, detrimental effects were given a further boost of credibility when in 2001, Japanese Professor Ryuta Kawashima, a brain imaging specialist, decided to investigate the levels of brain activity in children playing video games. He was hoping that his research would benefit the gaming world, thus possibilities for his own funding. His findings however, did not please the games manufacturers. The professor was convinced that children who play computer and video games excessively will not develop their frontal lobes and may therefore be more prone to act more violently as they grow up. [9]

As well as a clear correlation between watching violent video games and increased aggression, poor academic performance has also been repeatedly found to be a consistent result of prolonged gaming. [10]  In a world of apps and i-phones these effects are beginning to reach deeper into the young and are causing concern from a number of scientists and academics.

Maryanne Wolf, an author and cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University in Massachusetts quoted in a September 2010 Guardian piece states: “It takes time to think deeply about information and we are becoming accustomed to moving on to the next distraction. I worry that the circuits that give us deep reading abilities will atrophy in adults and not be properly formed in the young.” The New York Time’s Nick Bilton reported on The UK Millennium Cohort Study in his March 31st article of 2013: ‘The Child, the Tablet and the Developing Mind.’ The study, which had been following 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 published a report in in the same year and found that children who watched more than three hours of television or DVDs a day “… had a higher chance of behavioural problems, emotional symptoms and relationship problems by the time they were 7 than children who did not. The study, of a sample of 11,000 children, found that children who played video games — often age-appropriate games — for the same amount of time did not show any signs of negative behavioral changes by the same age.”

So, it seems it is the quality and content and exposure time to these types of technology that is the issue.

Digitale-DemenzIn Europe, German neuropsychiatrist Dr. Manfred Spitzer has shown in his book Digitale Demenz (Digital Dementia – 2012) that when young children are exposed to too much computer-based activities their brain development suffers resulting in irreversible deformations. [11] Though not the first to investigate the effects of computers and software on young brains, his findings have drawn considerable criticism, not for the science it seems, but for the heresy of pointing out substantial drawbacks in the perceived perfection of a new technology that is currently re-shaping lives.

Researchers in 2005 also found a new perceptual effect they labelled “attentional rubber-necking” which appears to mimic the “jolts” and “shocks” we have from the dynamics of visual pollution. The Vanderbilt and Yale University study found that when people are exposed to erotic or violent images they often fail to fully process what they see immediately after. [12] It seems the mind’s capacity to absorb information – and perhaps crucial data – can switch off like a light bulb in a darkened room, or in the researchers words, an “emotion-induced blindness.” New research also suggests that young adult brains continue to be malleable to new thoughts and ideas (especially when fused with a highly emotional content) up until age 18 and beyond, though the areas of the brain affected tend to change.

The organizing and re-integrating of new sensory information via this technology shows such a “synthesis helps shape the kinds of emotional and behavioural responses [children] have to new experiences.” [13] It is these experiences that dictate exactly how a personality and its brain responds and perceives the outer world and whether it attains a creative or entropic response. How can an individual learn to understand himself and his psychological “wounds” if he is distracted and buffered by chemical inducing technology; where feelings, thoughts and dreams are fused with artifice?

The merging of official culture with new forms of technological addiction seems assured. Evelyn Pringle, writing for online journal Counterpunch in April 2010 revealed more information regarding the experiments in the effects of technology on children in her widely quoted report: ‘The Psychiatric Drugging of Infants and Toddlers.’ In 2010, the University of Maryland conducted an experiment named “Unplugged.” Researchers asked 200 undergraduates to stop using all internet and cell phone technology for one day and to keep a diary of how they were feeling. Many of the students reported symptoms of dependency and addiction. The University of Maryland concluded that: “Most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable, to be without their media links to the world.” This means that similar studies are unlikely to attract the participants needed for further evaluations.

Research quoted by Newsweek’s Tony Dokoupil in his in-depth July 2012 report: ‘Is the Web Driving Us Mad?’ is also instructive.  He introduces Professor Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, who, in 2008, proved conclusively that changes in the brain occurred even with moderate Internet use. 24 people were used in the study half of which were experienced internet users and the others very green. While the green users were normal, the veteran users’ brains were scanned and found to have “fundamental” alterations in the prefrontal cortexes. Then, each of the newbie participants were instructed to spend five hours online and then scanned again. A definite “re-wiring” of their brains had taken place.  More from Dokoupil’s research presently.

The latest technological appendages that we and especially children cannot do without are the i-phones, i-pads and tablets. The new diagnosis of i-phone addiction disorder is starting to do the rounds. Journalist Evelyn Pringle further highlights cases from Taiwan involving one:

 “… high-school boy who ended up in an asylum after his iPhone usage reached 24 hours a day. The other [case] featured a 31-year-old saleswoman who used her phone while driving. Both cases might have been laughed off if not for a 200-person Stanford study of iPhone habits released at the same time. It found that one in 10 users feels ‘fully addicted’ to his or her phone. All but 6 percent of the sample admitted some level of compulsion, while 3 percent won’t let anyone else touch their phones.”

Meanwhile, the UK Telegraph ran a report from 2013 By Victoria Ward, entitled: ‘Toddlers becoming so addicted to iPads they require therapy.’ As the title suggested toddlers are fast becoming addicted to i-pads and tablets as a result of lazy parenting and a symptom of a laissez-faire attitude to technology in general. Many medical experts are concerned that: “… parents who allow babies and toddlers to access tablet computers for several hours a day are in danger of causing ‘dangerous’ long term effects,” The report stated. It went on to describe the case of a four-year-old girl from the South East of England who is the youngest known patient being treated in the UK. Dr Richard Graham, who launched the UK’s first technology addiction programme in 2010 is seeing an increasing number of children displaying symptoms of severe addiction in relation to i-pads and internet-based technology. A 28-day “digital detox” programme is offered to desperate parents at the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London. He told the Telegraph that:  “… young technology addicts experienced the same withdrawal symptoms as alcoholics or heroin addicts, when the devices were taken away. He warned that the condition prevented young people from forming normal social relationships, leaving them drained by the constant interaction.”

But as baby-proof iPad covers and iPotties flood the market of convenience it seems this particular addiction will provide another market for healing and drug prescription.

Over in the United States Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is distributing tablets along with suitable curricula to college students. Part of the Department of Education and Common Core education initiative, it promises to lock children into a monolithic, centralised screen-based education with very little participation from parents and educators. Since children spend most of their days locked into their laptops, i-phones and computer games now they’ll be spending the rest of their waking hours staring into a computer screen studying a curriculum they already had little interest in.

Founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology EdX, a nonprofit enterprise offers online courses using automated software and artificial intelligence to grade student essays and other written answers. As the New York Time’s John Markoff, describes it in his piece: ‘Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break’: “Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program. And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve your grade.” The idea is to free up more time for college and University professors. That efficiency meme again…

Though many educators and academics loathe the idea and are resisting its implementation it seems inevitable that such automation in education will become the norm in a system that prides itself on technocratic principles rather than the needs of the child. ‘The Epidemic of Media Multi-tasking while learning’, by Annie Murphy Paul posted in May of 2013 to education/tech site http://www.navigator.compasslearning.com explored this very subject. It reached some disturbing conclusions, namely the erosion of student’s focus and attention through excessive multi-tasking.

Researchers from the lab of Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills followed students as they went about their onerous studying and where he and his colleagues “… counted the number of windows open on the students’ screens and noted whether the students were wearing ear-buds.”

While ticking boxes on a check-list which included: “reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer—and also using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, surfing the web.” It seems that students’ “on-task behavior” began to decline at after only two minutes choosing to respond to text messages or checking Facebook. Only 65 percent of the observation period was spent doing homework. Rosen stated: “We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching. It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Unlike radio, the T.V., – and by extension, the internet – by replacing storytelling and other shared activities, may have paradoxically contributed to the loss of societal communication and cohesion. Eventually, this has devalued play in all its forms, eroded parenting skills, even inducing ignorance towards the idea of parenting itself. The internet is certainly an extraordinary tool for knowledge, information and social exchange, but naturally, it has a dark side which can be forgotten in the rush to embrace it.

From Tony Dokoupil’s Newsweek article, he usefully summarises the rate of change and some of its effects:

In less than the span of a single childhood, Americans have merged with their machines, staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day, more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping. Teens fit some seven hours of screen time into the average school day; 11, if you count time spent multitasking on several devices. When President Obama last ran for office, the iPhone had yet to be launched. Now smartphones outnumber the old models in America, and more than a third of users get online before getting out of bed.

Meanwhile, texting has become like blinking: the average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month, four times the 2007 number. The average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month, double the 2007 figure. And more than two thirds of these normal, everyday cyborgs, myself included, report feeling their phone vibrate when in fact nothing is happening. Researchers call it “phantom-vibration syndrome.”

Dukoupil reported on the latest peer-reviewed research and other common findings which could only be seen as a slap in the face of internet utopians. He further stated: “The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”

Newsweek conducted its own research reviewing findings from over a dozen countries all of which are following the same trajectory of addiction with their attendant negative effects. These include depression, reactive psychosis, anxiety, and the common rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The latter is linked to internet and i-phone addiction after studies reported by journalists Alan Schwartz and Sarah Cohen in a New York Times article of March 2013: ‘A.D.H.D. Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise’ confirmed nearly one in five high school age boys and 11 percent of school-age children in general have received a medical diagnosis of ADHD. This is what the data revealed after a 53 percent rise in the condition in just a decade. Is there a link? Many believe so. Which makes a very lucrative case for Big Pharma, since all these children need to be medicalised, it seems.

It is no coincidence that also in the last decade the number of children less than a year old receiving medication has sky-rocketed in the United States. Diagnoses of bipolar disorder has also doubled over the last decade according to a Reuters report. Journalist by Evelyn Pringle writing for the previously mentioned 2010 Counterpunch article observed: “Of antipsychotic-treated children in the 2007 study sample, [from Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry] the most common diagnoses were pervasive developmental disorder or mental retardation (28.2%), ADHD (23.7%), and disruptive behavior disorder (12.9%).

In one sense, all of us who use computers are made addicts since the average person spends more than 38 hours online due to the rapidly changing nature of technology tied to the workplace. The child however, is in the front line of this neurological change.

With a diet of gratuitous violence – whether comic book or ultra-realism – the child is habituated to a glut of sensation and the neurological stunting that eventuates. Anything less than this is “boring”. A spiritual vacuum condemns our future adults to a “filthy tide” of cheap thrills and superficiality wrapped in soft quilts of technical addiction. The damaged care for the damaged and perpetuate the legacy. Notwithstanding the background link of 18 Certificate computer gaming in most of the US shooting massacres of recent times, the ubiquitous and increasing levels of extreme violence and destruction classed as entertainment on our TV and in our cinemas combined with the rise of SMART society it can only exacerbate an already violence-saturated culture. However, the key here seems to be the quality and content of the internet and video games or the type of technology we expose our children to.

In writer Eli Khamarov’s words: “Most people are awaiting Virtual Reality; I’m awaiting virtuous reality.”

 


Notes

[1] Robert E. Hales, The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry (2008) p. 1472.
[2] ‘Development of a Cognitive Process Model to Explain the Effects of Heavy Television Viewing on Social Judgment’ L. J. Shrum, Rutgers University | http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=8172
[3] Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (Vol 159, p 607, p 614, p 619, p 687) quoted from NewScientist.com news service ‘Watching TV harms kids’ academic success’ by Anna Gosline July 4, 2005.
[4] “Lure of Television is stronger than a smile” by David Lister, The Times, November 7, 2006: “Previous research into the behaviour of young children and babies has shown that they prefer to look at faces and do so instinctively in order to learn and to communicate. This was borne out by an initial experiment on 34 five-year-olds, 25 eight-year-olds and 34 adults, in which they were each shown a photograph of a face alongside either a doll’s house, a toy boat, a toy train, a tap, a teapot or a wall clock. The overwhelming majority looked at the image of a face before the competing object.In a second experiment, however, 143 children aged 5 to 8 were seated in front of a computer screen on which the image of a blank television screen was shown next to a face for less than a second. The children were told to press the spacebar as soon as they saw a bar of chocolate appear on the screen. Most of the children aged 6 to 8 pressed the spacebar fastest when the chocolate bar appeared behind the picture of the television and not the face, suggesting that they were already looking at it. Only the five-year-olds responded fastest when the chocolate was behind the face. Martin Doherty, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Stirling, who carried out the research with Dr Bindemann, said: ‘One of the interesting things is that five-year-olds still have a face bias but six-year-olds don’t.’”
[5] Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, published by William Morrow, 1978 | ISBN: 0688082742.
[6] p.166; Evolutions End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence By Joseph Chiltern Pearce Published by HarperCollins 1992, ISBN 0-06-250693-5.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Part of the Daily American Diet, 34 Gigabytes of Data’ By Nick Bilton, The New York Times, December 9, 2009.
[9] ‘Heavy Video Game Use by Kids May slow Brain Development – Game industry disputes findings of Japanese study’ – The Observer August 19, 2001.
[10] Video games ‘increase aggression’, 23 April, 2000, BBC News.
[11] Digitale Demenz: Wie wir uns und unsere Kinder um den Verstand bringen By Manfred Spitzer. (only in German at the time of writing.)
[12] ‘Researchers explore a perceptual effect called ‘attentional rubbernecking’ by Melanie Moran, August 2005 Vanderbilt University, Nashville USA.
[13] ‘Brains of Young Adults Not Fully Mature’ By Ker Than http://www.livescience.com February, 2006.

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