A boy, about 10, sat down on a bench with his mother and me the other day to watch a film at the National Gallery of Art. The short was about the work of the primitive artist Henri Rousseau. You don't have to be an art connoisseur to enjoy Rousseau, with his lush jungle scenes of lions and snakes, painted with both whimsy and menace. Monkeys hang from trees high above the action.
At first I thought the boy would get a kick out of the images; this is a child-friendly, even a particularly boy-friendly, show. And indeed he might have enjoyed it more if he had given it half a chance, but Rousseau's colorful jungle was no match for his electronic video game. He watched it for the duration of the film.
It wasn't my place to tell him what he was missing, but I was tempted. His mother, enthralled with the visuals, seemed content to enjoy the film without hassling her son to watch, too. Could this little vignette make a statement about what kids enjoy today? Sometimes a single anecdote can raise troubling cultural questions. Children are growing up in an image culture, but the image ain't what it used to be. Every day a "new study shows" how electronic images play on vulnerable minds, and a lot of the play is ill.
Random stories emerge from recent research. Third-graders with television sets in their bedrooms perform significantly poorer on standardized tests than their peers who go to sleep without the soporific of the tube, a "new study shows" in the work of researchers of Stanford University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University. In a typical day, more than 8 of 10 children under the age of 6 watch the television screen on average of two hours a day. Kaiser Family Foundation researchers found that four of 10 children under 2 watch television every day.
The mother of a 4-year old uses television to slow down the son she describes as "hyper." Television changes his mood, which is "much better for him and for me." A study by Wake Forest's Baptist Medical Center found that teenagers who watch wrestling regularly are likely to fight with their dates, and even carry a weapon.
"It's yet more evidence that, when it comes to kids and media, learning happens," says Kimberly Thompson, a professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health. "Parents have to pay attention to what's in their kids' media diet and what they're seeing and experiencing."