Overstimulated and Underprotected in the Modern Media World
First published Winter 2014
Information, useful and trivial, wanted or not, bombards us constantly. Our senses are continually stimulated. In self-protection, I have personally found an email access that avoids a “home page”; I no longer am assaulted with the latest celebrity news, nor the disaster of the moment, whether actual or threatened; and I no longer see innumerable ads that tell me what I need to buy for a happy life. These things I can choose to consider if, and when, I want to. My freedom as an adult lets me have this choice.
But for little children, it is quite different. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, described the young child as a “total sense organ.” To understand this, we can think of our own eyes. When they are open, we see everything that is before us whether we want to or not. As we grow older, we can choose whether or not to pay attention to what we see, but the visual impression still registers in the eye. The eye cannot select what it sees.
This is what little children are like. They cannot select what they “see” with all of their senses. Here we mean not only sight, but also hearing, touch, taste, and smell, for example. Everything that comes toward the children goes in and makes an impression. If we think of our own adult experience of information and sensory overload, what must it be like for a little child who is quite defenseless? Some children know that they are overwhelmed and shrink away from contact with the world; they find their protection in retreat. Others just begin to “short out.” Their nervous systems become so stressed that no more can be tolerated. Little explosions, meltdowns, and otherwise wacky behavior send the children—and us—into tailspins.
There is an attitude in our society that dictates that everyone must experience and learn things as fast as possible, the earlier the better; otherwise, our children are at risk of being “left behind.” Young children are expected to accomplish sophisticated learning and information assimilation at earlier and earlier ages. Somehow it is viewed that cognitive development can be accelerated by giving more and more information faster and faster. And so the societal expectations push us along.
Yet if we look at the child in other areas of development, we see a very different picture. We know that babies need lots of sleep. We do not decide to keep them awake so they can learn about the world faster. Our good sense lets the baby literally sleep his way into life to start with, only gradually becoming more and more wakeful. We know that their digestion develops gradually. We do not feed steak and oysters to an infant. We give them foods that are easy to digest, adding in new tastes and smells only step by step, as their system matures. We observe that the children do best when in this way, life is paced more slowly.
So it is with sensory stimulation and information. Since children cannot shield themselves from overload, the caring adults around them need to be their filters. The facts we need to know about the world we gather in time. The information shared by the internet and media is not carefully selected to encourage healthy development. What our children need is fewer visual images, less noise, quiet meaningful speech; and purposeful activities that introduce the world slowly but surely. The little child can step toward life and greet its experiences a little bit at a time. To greet the world in this way is a relief for the children. They can prepare to meet the complexities and details of life with interest and strength when they are older and stronger. “Overload” is for the adults to deal with, not for these new little people.