“Television rots your brain.” Ever hear that from your parents? Ever use the same line on your own kids trying to unglue them from the set? As it turns out, it’s closer to the truth than most parents think.

Years ago the Center for Continuing Education at the Australian National University reported that TV impairs thought. Here’s the rub: the Center wasn’t criticizing TV programming. It simply reported the effects of the technology itself. Whether we watch high-brow programming or TV trash makes no difference; the effect is the same.

The Center reported, “…television not only destroys the capacity of the viewer to attend, it also, by taking over a complex of direct and indirect neural pathways, decreases vigilance….” The mild euphoria we all feel when watching TV apparently has physical roots: TV changes the state of our brains.

It’s got to do with the flicker rate and luminosity of the TV screen. These have a measurable effect on the nervous system.

One symptom is the TV stare. Our eyes stop their rapid scan of the environment–their normal activity–and become fixed on one plane a few yards in front of us. That glazed-over look is not superficial; our brains actually work differently when we gaze at the tube.

The Center concluded that while watching TV, “…our usual processes of thinking and discernment are semi-functional at best,” and “the technology of television and the inherent nature of the viewing experience actually inhibit learning as we usually think of it.” A number of critics dubbed this altered state of consciousness “TV epilepsy.” Many have since speculated on the connections of TV epilepsy with decreasing attention spans of children.

What is true for broadcast TV in this case is true for the videos we make. They use the same technology.

We videomakers expend a great deal of energy improving the value and quality of our productions: our programming. We want to supplant TV trash with something better. But if the very medium in which we work is harmful, are we not accessories to its crime? From this view, good programming would be worse than bad programming. It attracts more viewers, and holds them longer, in an experience that will harm them. The actual content of our programs would be only an engaging distraction: the razzle-dazzle magician who keeps the marks entertained while a pickpocket robs them blind. While we fill their heads with information, the tube itself steals their ability to use it. They lose more than their wallets to TV; they lose their minds.

Should we dump our TVs and camcorders into the ocean and be done with them? Apart from the harm they would do to ocean-dwelling creatures, this may seem a tempting option to some. A more moderate response, though one requiring just as much self-discipline, balances TV with other media. This does not eliminate TV epilepsy, but limits its extent. As media consumers we might, for example, make sure our diet contains as much reading–and not off screens, that wouldn’t help much–as it does viewing. Reading requires and strengthens sustained attention span and rational thought–precisely those faculties that TV attacks. TV, on the other hand, engenders a mode of perception characterized by visual association and feeling for motion. These video faculties could after all complement the rational if they do not supplant it altogether.

As media producers, we should remain wary of our tools. Get away from them sometimes. Try not to say that more video is good for people as long as the programming is good. Avoid preaching that video alone will save the world. And keep making the best video we can.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker’s Editor in Chief.

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