I discovered Mr Rogers when my son was young. He would walk down the steps, put on his cardigan, change his shoes and welcome us to his neighborhood. He was quiet and gentle and never threatening. I could feel myself coming to rest as we walked through his neighborhood, as he talked about childhood fears, as he sang to us.
A book I’m reading right now suggests that Mr Rogers knew what he was doing with little children. In The God-Shaped Brain, psychiatrist Timothy Jennings argues from research that the childhood brain is developing and wiring itself and that the violent stimulation of the brain inhibits development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brains responsible for reasoned thought. Instead, the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional responses, particularly our response to danger, fires up, hindering the pre-frontal cortex functions. He further argues that this happens with all “theatrical entertainment” on TV, but not with educational television. And he connects these things to issues of impulse control, ADHD and more.
He also quotes statistics that show that the advent of TV in the US and Canada in roughly 1945 correlates with a 93 percent increase in murder rates. What is interesting is that this was the time of Howdy Doody and Gilligan’s Island. In South Africa, where TV wasn’t introduced until 1974 and the content increasingly violent, the murder rate actually declined during the 1945 to 1974 period prior to TV but went up 130 percent 1974-87. Now many will argue this is correlation and not causation. But I would ask, what other causative variable might account for this?
As I was writing this, news came of another school shooting. No doubt there will be discussions about mental illness. But in light of contemporary neuroscience, I wonder if we should be thinking more about how the brains of our children are being wired by media (and increasingly video) exposure at a young age, particularly before age 8. Certainly many will never act out violently. But what are the other effects? What about the capacity for sustained attention and rational thought? What about impulse control?
Will the visual media industry be like big tobacco, trying to deny the deleterious effects of their product? Time will tell. But more and more, as much as we might think him a bit odd and a product of another age, I can’t help but think that Mr Rogers was onto something.