Letters from Maine

Shades of gray


If you were born in or after the 1970s, it is very likely that you have never watched a television show on a black and white set. Although the roots of its technology extend well back into the early 20th century, the first color broadcast on a national television network didn’t occur until 1954 with NBC’s coverage of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

When we compare the popularization of color television with the rapid pace at which we adopt new technology today, the popularization of color TV was glacial. In large part because of their expense, sales of color sets did not surpass black and white sets until 1972. Our family lagged behind the curve and finally caved in and junked our black and white television around 1977.

The observable change in our viewing behavior was dramatic. While programming in black and white was interesting, the color images were magnetic. We were drawn by the visual excitement and stimulation that color offered, and our family’s viewing standards took a precipitous dip. We seemed to watch anything that was colorful and moved. The quality of the content took a back seat. Viewing in color seemed to require much less cognitive effort. Ironically what attracted our attention allowed us to invest less energy in paying attention.

As a regular reader of Letters From Maine, you know that I am convinced that sleep deprivation is a major contributor to the emergence of the ADHD phenomenon. However, I can make a similar argument that the introduction of color television is an equally potent coconspirator or confounder. The magnetism inherent in a moving color image can tempt even the most health conscious among us to stay well past a brain-friendly bedtime. The invention of the electric light may have gotten the ball rolling, but the ubiquity of moving electronic color images has certainly greased what was already a very slippery slope into an abyss of unhealthy sleep habits.

A young boy with cell phone ©iStock/ThinkStockPhotos.com
In the last decade, we have put this eye candy of color television literally into the hands of very small children in the form of smartphones and tablets. Whether the power of electronic color images that I have referred to as magnetism can qualify as a true addiction is currently being investigated. However, anecdotal evidence of the attention grabbing power of these devices for children of all ages is overwhelming.

There are those who argue that smartphones and tablets can open a world of creative opportunities for even very young children. And, it is obvious that parents are struggling to find a balance as they try to decide when, where, and how often to allow their infants and toddlers access to handheld electronic devices.

Recently there has been much finger-pointing at the developers and manufacturers of smartphones and tablets. How can any company with a social conscience sell a product with such dangerous attractive potential for children without providing safeguards? Isn’t it like selling a swimming pool without a gated fence?

Of course the answer to this question goes to the heart of how our society views its responsibility to protect its children. Regardless of who makes the rules and how the responsibility is assigned, it is still the child’s parents who must make sure that the gate is locked.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

I recently encountered a newspaper article describing a clever strategy that might make the job of policing handheld electronic devices much easier for concerned parents (Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone? by Nellie Bowles, The New York Times, Jan. 12, 2018). The author describes a simple maneuver in the settings of your device that will allow you to shift the screen image from the stimulating colors to which you are accustomed to shades of gray. Apparently, there is more than a little neuroscience evidence that supports my anecdotal evidence that taking out the color will make the screens much less attractive for children … and adults. It’s certainly worth a try.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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