PUBLISHED: 4:49 PM on Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Rapid growth of technology affecting behavior, lifestyles
AMARILLO, Texas - Rita Morrow was fixing dinner when her son came in after spending a day playing with a new friend.

"Mom, guess what? Eric knows how to play," he said.

"That spoke volumes when he said that," Morrow said.

The Morrow family gave up most of its television viewing about 15 years ago. They have a small television in a back apartment, but it is seldom used. On special occasions, such as the Super Bowl, they'll rent a hotel room for the night and make it a special event. Otherwise, TV is not a vital part of their lives.

"In the winter, the apartment's cold. It's not a comfort zone," Rita said. "You've really got to want to watch (TV)."

She expected problems making the adjustment when she and her husband Paul made the decision to do without the boob tube.

"There were immediate benefits from it across the board," Rita said.

Grades went up, homework got finished and attention spans improved.

"They (children) got used to using their imaginations," she said.

Chuck and Mary Anne Freas noticed the same thing this year when they decided to keep the television off Monday morning through Friday afternoon.

"We have found our house much more peaceful without the TV on," Mary Anne Freas said. "It has the additional benefit of reducing the general stress level at the house. Since the boys know they won't get to watch TV even if they finish their homework, they don't rush through it so much, and end up doing better work.

"We are enjoying uninterrupted conversations, and the boys' grades are improved. They have started reading books and magazines for enjoyment, and they practice their musical instruments more. The evenings are more enjoyable and productive without the black hole of TV time and, though the boys would probably not admit it, they, too, like the greater peace and quiet."

Families that have reduced the role of television in their lives are a clear minority.

From iPhones, portable DVD players and other handheld devices to large-screen plasma TV sets and IMAX theaters, Hollywood's products are offered on demand in multiple formats.

The convergence of technology and entertainment has radically changed who we are, how we connect and the way we function as a society.

"There's a progression from the '40s on, where we see more disconnect," said Wib Newton, a licensed professional counsellor and executive director of New Hope Counseling and Resources.

"We used to see people gathering around the fire place, and then the radio and later the TV when it came out. You don't see that any more."

He said people today have an "addiction to stimulus" that makes it more comfortable to communicate through gadgets than face to face.

"I've seen couples come in the office who have been married 30 years and they can't even look each other in the eyes and they can't talk," Newton said.

He added that it's not unusual to see groups of teenagers walking together, each talking on a cell phone, not to each other.

"Some people are able to connect deeper if they aren't eyeball to eyeball ... but those items become a crutch," Newton said.

A 2004 report in NeuroPsychiatry Reviews linked excessive TV viewing at a young age to a range of attention problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. That same year, psychologists reported in the periodical Pediatrics that frequent television viewing was linked to shortened attention spans.

Gayle Eudey, at teacher at Humphrey's Highland Elementary School, has been teaching second grade for more than 30 years. She said the increase in television viewing and technological advances has both advantages and disadvantages. Those who regularly watch education channels like the History Channel, Discover Channel and Animal Planet come to school more prepared and with a better grasp of what is being taught, she said.

"They bring some prior knowledge into the classroom," Eudey said.

She noted that those who fill their time with cartoons, music videos and video games tend to be less prepared and more difficult to teach.

"Attention spans have become much shorter," Eudey said.

However, the increase in media has allowed teachers to bring more tools into the classroom and to expand lessons.

"They (pupils) want things to be easy for them and we all know that learning is about digging deeper," Eudey said.

Educational standards have been set much higher than they were 20 years ago, Eudey said, and technology helps youngsters achieve the standards.

"There isn't a single subject taught by talking alone," she said.

Trudy Hanson, chair of the department of communication at West Texas A&M University, said students have changed over the years.

"It seems no matter what their economic background, most of my students have both a cell phone and an iPod," she said. "Media research has shown that having grown up with such media, our students have developed shorter attention spans.

"Again, educational research also shows that traditional ways of teaching are not sufficient to engage this generation of students. Used to visual images and sound bites, sitting in a lecture hall with the professor droning on in a lecture that seems unconnected to them results in class absences and, in some cases, limited learning."

Hanson said it is important for educators to keep up with technology.

"I think that as educators we need to harness this technology to engage our students," Hanson said.

Dr. Juli D'Ann Ratheal, assistant professor of mathematics at WT, said technology has changed the way her students learn.

"Any type of information a student needs to know is instantly accessible. Sometimes it's too easy and they don't have to do the digging and research," Ratheal said, adding that doing research often lends itself to other discoveries. "It's not quite as broad of an experience as they get."

Randy Ray, assistant director of broadcasting at WT, said digital television has permanently changed the way people think and act.

"Digital technology is the biggest change in the industry since color TV," he said.

Digital technology has taken control of the media away from the professionals and put it into the hands of amateurs, hence the popularity of Web sites such as YouTube.

"The amateurs are in charge of the henhouse now," added Leigh Browning, associate professor of mass communication and director of broadcasting at WT.

Ray said media will continue to become a bigger part of American life.

"Everywhere we turn we're led by media. Even the modern church today is media heavy," he said.

People have become so accustomed to the fast pace of life that new technology is needed to keep them engaged.

"Our attention span has shortened a little bit, Ray said. "In classrooms and churches it takes more to keep people focused, I believe."

The digital revolution, he said, will spell the end of film and tape.

"All media are converging. It's not a buzzword anymore, it's the way things are," Ray said.

People working with technology will have to have a broader education and will be less specialized. Ray said in the future reporters, photographers and editors will have to be cross-trained.

"We're teaching people today for jobs that don't even exist right now," he said.

Browning said technology is changing the way people get their entertainment.

"Consumers want their content how they want it, when they want it and where they want it," she said.

With television recording devices such as TiVo, people can watch programs when it's convenient. As a result, even water cooler conversations about television programs are becoming a thing of the past.

"We don't have the shared media experience we used to," Browning said.

She said people need to be aware of is that constant media exposure does a lot more than eat up our time and influence our minds.

"We can hide so easily in the virtual world. There's very little accountability," Browning said. "Not only can you be someone else entirely, but people can say things about you that are not true and it can hurt."

Ray noted that no matter what direction technology goes, there is no substitute for a good story and human experiences to base those stories on.

"You can have all the technology you want, but if you're not communicating, its worthless," he said. "Life needs to be experienced some way other than virtual."