Endangered Minds: An interview with Jane Healy
Jane Healy has written a couple of books that wrestle with the impact of media on childrens development. The first, Endangered Minds (Simon and Schuster, 1990), is one of few attempts to document, for a lay audience, various lifestyle changesdeclines in language skills, attention spans and physical activity, coupled with ever-increasing media useand their effect on learning. More recently, shes written Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Childrens Minds and What We Can Do About It (Simon and Schuster, 1998).
We tried to interview Healy for Stay Free! #17 but she, alas, was halfway across the planet at the time. We did, however, manage to hook up after the fact.Carrie McLaren
Stay Free: In Endangered Minds, you compared standardized tests from 1964 and 1988. Were those tests typical of tests and curriculum materials nationally?
Jane Healy: I havent examined a wide variety of tests. But, yes, it is common knowledge that the standards for standardized tests (when it comes to language skills) are declining. Even the SAT has been re-normed for the first time in its history.
You mean the vocabulary is simpler?
I mean its easier to guess, to get a higher score by getting the same percentage of right answers. Now, the Educational Testing Service (which makes the SAT) may tell you something different, but this is definitely the way its perceived among educators.
I read something about scores on IQ tests going up. Is that true?
On the nonverbal IQ tests, yes. Its small, but theres been an increase over a long period of time. It has been extensively studied but not yet satisfactorally explained, although a number of social and cultural factors have been examined.
Well, the fact that people have more access to puzzles and games and the kinds of activities that build visual spatial skills. Things like better nutrition and changing demographics have been looked at. There is wider schooling. Numerous factors could account for this.
Harpers had an item showing that the number of vocabulary words used by thirteen year olds has rapidly declined over time. And Ive read that the average American uses some sort of filler word"like," ""you know," or "um"every seventh word or so.
Oh, is it every seventh? I would guess more than that. Younger people generally use a lot more filler.
So has that increased?
Well, that is the perception. I havent seen any thorough studies.
What do you think is behind the rise in filler words?
Well, visual skillsand in many cases, low-level visual skillsare being stressed heavily for children. The amount and quality of linguistic stimulation has declined. And this is happening during the period when brains are growing, when they are developing linguistic structures such as vocabulary and syntax. We continue to learn these things all our lives, of course, but the brain is extremely sensitive from preschool through middle school. Kids are spending a great deal of time with, say, TV sitcomswhich are at a fourth grade level or below, in terms of vocabulary and syntax.
You mean both in and outside the classroom?
Yes. Teachers try. But if a student has not developed listening skills, most of what the teacher says is not processed. Kids may have a thought floating around in their heads, but they cannot use the inner language to sort out what theyre thinking. And they cant use the oral language, or the written language, to express it. So what you have is a generation that is increasingly inarticulate, and increasingly less interested in attending to language input. Which could, in and of itself, account for an increase in Attention Deficit Disorder. Because without the inner speech, you cant mediate you own thinking, and therefore you cant mediate your own behavior. You have trouble planning ahead, you have trouble saying to yourself, "Look, I shouldnt be doing this, because, if I do " Think of the complex language relationships going on with those sort of "if/then" statements.
This type of thought is linear.
Yes. "If I do blank, then this might happen, therefore . . . " These causal relationships are connected in language.
Do you think kids in general are having a harder time paying attention, rather than it just being a select group that has attention disorders?
Well, not all of them, no. It depends on the kind of language input theyve had. There are kids in all socio-economic groups who have had really careful language input from parents, from school settings, and have in fact developed reasonably good language skills. These are the kids that are going to go to the best colleges.
What about the decline of physical exercise? Isnt that also part of it?
Yes, any occupational therapist could tell you that not getting exercise and body movement contributes to attention problems.
What about multitasking? Parents often say that their kids are good at doing several things at once.
There is a lot to be said for multi-tasking. But you have to learn tasks well before you can learn multitasking . . . and I would suggest that the computer activities that children are engaging in now are teaching them to be careless about how they "task." Because its all too easy to blow it off and just start all over again.
Its a cliché nowadays that TV and computers decrease your attention span. But no one ever mentions this in articles about attention disorders. Its such an obvious connection that people arent willing to seriously consider it.
We hear what we want to hear. People do not want to hear that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children under two should not have any screen time. Parents do not want to hear that the amount of TV their children watch has caused them problems in school. Its easier to say, "He has a brain disorder." And the fact is that many of these children do have brains that function differently. We know ADD runs in the family to some degree, but we dont know how much of this is a function of this type of early environment.
The computer software thats being rushed into market is training kids to be attention deficit disordered. Its training them to be impulsive, to have meager finger control because theyre just using a small part of their motor system. These are the hallmarks of attention deficit disorder.
Every major culture has risen or fallen because of things they failed to notice. And were not going to be any exception. Im not going to say that TV and computers bringing down the culture, but I truly think they can start a process that will dramatically change the character of the culture. And whether people will like what they get is a question no one can answer.