A DANGEROUS NOTION
The Inalienable Right to Be Entertained

September 2000By David C. Stolinsky

David C. Stolinsky, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

Recently, my car broke down on a freeway during rush hour. I parked on the median and awaited help. An hour went by, but no police car appeared. Finally I saw a break in traffic and ran across the freeway to a call box. A tow truck arrived, and the driver hooked up my car, despite a cast on his leg. He reported that he was a skydiver and had waited a bit too long to open his parachute. We joked about the "high" that accompanies dangerous activities, whether jumping out of airplanes or running across freeways.

Surprisingly, the "high" persisted that day, despite the anticipated repair bill. If a middle-aged professional can get a "rush" from a mildly dangerous activity that briefly interrupts his routine, how much stronger a "rush" will be felt by a young person? How much dangerous or criminal activity is evoked by a need for such "highs" to relieve boredom? How many people use "recreational" drugs for the same purpose? How many marriages break up from the results of boredom? How many people fail to reach their potential because they are too bored to stay in school or at a job?

I grew up with storytelling, books, and radio, which require imagination and patience. A children's radio show required me to spend a quarter-hour sitting still and thinking about one thing. I still find it difficult to put a book down in mid-chapter. My family got a television set when I was in high school, but we watched TV together, and the program was selected by consensus. Changing channels required getting up and going to the set, and few channels were available, so I usually watched whatever it was to its conclusion.

Things have changed. Remote controls make changing the many channels all too easy, so I "channel surf" whenever the program grows the least bit tedious. I still read avidly, but my attention span for TV is much shorter than it was. Today's children read less and listen to radio less than I did. TV teaches them to consider social and political questions -- if they consider such questions at all -- in a superficial and subjective way, emphasizing feelings rather than facts. Many kids have their own TV, and there are computer games galore. Children often spend hours at these games, which seem to require a long attention span. But each segment of the game is brief, and kids can switch games at will, so one might question whether the net effect is to lengthen or shorten the attention span.


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