October 8, 2010

Hats off to the Professor

By Don Shifrin, MD FAAP

It wasn’t so long ago that Robert Preston played the legendary flim-flam man, Professor Harold Hill in the 1962 movie, The Music Man. In it he envisions a way to profit from the paranoia he creates by sensationalizing the threat to River City’s youth from the local pool hall. In the movie’s seminal scene he sings to the parents of the ‘troubles’ hanging around the pool hall will cause:

“Well, either you're closing your eyes
to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
by the presence of a pool table in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.

Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I'm gonna be perfectly frank."

Flash forward 48 years to the concept that the newest “threat” to our youth might be media overexposure. Could it be real, or as exaggerated as the Professor’s theory regarding pool halls?

The list of negative outcomes from media overexposure grows longer each day: from early sexuality, smoking, poor nutritional choices, sleep problems, attention issues, cyber-bullying, violence, decreased family time, and potential academic underachievement.

I accede to the positive aspects of media for children and teens to connect, form peer-related communities, heighten political awareness, and hyper-accelerate learning.

I am not looking for profit, like Professor Hill, but note that in respect to learning. Michael Kirst, an emeritus education professor at Stanford, estimates that 60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of incoming freshman at 4 year schools need remedial reading and math courses. ( Newsweek 9/13/2010)

While elementary schools are making progress academically, high schools have stagnated. Is it the teachers, courses, rigor, or failure to engage academic curiosity? Or is it media time, content and depth, or constant multitasking that is one of the biggest factors in disincentivizing students to “not like school”?

The US high school drop out rate is now 1 student every 26 seconds (7000/day). There are nearly 2000 high schools in the US where 60% of the students entering do not graduate. I can guarantee you, however, that those who drop out are all very media aware across a multitude of electronic devices.

Is there a carry-forward? I suspect strongly that tweens and teens are “tuning in, turning on”, and possibly then ‘dropping out” of the traditional educational process. (Apologies to Timothy Leary circa 1965 urging people to embrace change by using LSD to remove their cultural and conventional norms.)

Can we not say that media is now the primary peer of our digital generation and cajoles them in similar ways: incessantly glamorizing, sensationalizing, and normalizing behaviors for them to emulate?
I want to bring us back to the reality of digital immersion: it is not going to vanish, unlike an obsession with billiards. Sixty-four percent of adults in 2004 thought that owning a TV was ‘necessary’. In 2010, that number dropped to 42% indicating that other devices are supplanting TV as a primary media source.

So the digital footprint moves quickly. This Professor thinks that the greatest risk for our children would be NOT to grant them access. And the second greatest risk would be to grant them unlimited access without guidance.

In my view their social, cultural, academic and economic future will be digitally integrated. Tools are being developed to change the school paradigm from classical appointment education in a classroom, to anytime, anywhere digital learning.
Soon tablets, interactive textbooks, super fast anywhere download speeds, educational games, voice processing, and Avatar model learning systems will come online.

Who will mentor children in this brave new world? Through multiple media outlets children are repeatedly exposed to questionable ethical behavior and morals. If left to sift through the world of reality TV, talk shows, political pundits, etc. without supervision, can we expect them to emulate the values we intend them to have?

Therefore, like Professor Harold Hill I now urge parents to “Heed the warning before it's too late!
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption!”
That may be a little too bombastic for this topic, but parent’s need to “turn on” and tune in” to the fact that the daily media exposures of 7+ hours (Kaiser Family Foundation Jan.2010) has essentially “dropped them out” of their role as the family’s primary value filter and educator.

Without sensationalizing the topic any further please encourage your parents to answer two questions:

1) Does your child have unsupervised and unlimited electronic access on his/her various devices, especially in the bedroom?
2) Has your child’s use of media changed his or her behavior(s), academic or social, or sleep habits, or his/her connection with your family?

If their answers are inconclusive, perhaps a song from the Professor might be appropriate.