Last April, hundreds of thousands of children across the country participated in TV Free Week. They switched off the tube and biked to their libraries, played Monopoly, and talked to their parents. What were the results? In the words of second grader Drew Henderson: "I really didn't like TV-Turnoff Week, except I did notice that my grades went up and I was in a good mood all week." April 21-27 has been designated as this year’s TV-Turnoff Week. With more organizations involved each year, it’s likely to be bigger than ever. As Senator Robert Byrd says: "It’s time to ‘turn off TV, and turn on life.’"
Our Television Addiction Most of us would admit, albeit grudgingly, that watching less TV would be for the best. Yet the thought of actually taking the plunge and limiting, or even eliminating, television makes us queasy. According to Neilson Media Research, the average American watches four hours of television a day. That adds up to one day per week, two months per year, and 10 solid years by the time you reach 65. Television has become so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine our lives without it. But if you’ve ever had the nagging feeling, as you watch your 9-year-old engrossed in an inane sitcom, that there must be a better way, take heart. Dr. Barbara Brock recently studied a growing movement across the country of families who have tuned out: either by eliminating TV altogether, or at least by watching less than an hour a day. Her study found that you can reduce the negative effects of television on your kids, and increase family harmony — without precipitating World War III in your home. To give you inspiration, here’s what families who don’t watch TV are experiencing instead:
1. TV-Free Kids are Healthier in Every Way The American Academy of Pediatrics says that nothing is more correlated with childhood obesity than the amount of television a child watches. There are three reasons for this: if you’re watching television, you’re not playing ball, throwing Frisbee, or playing tag. You’re also more likely to grab snacks than if you’re up and active. Dr. William Detz of the Centers for Disease Control concludes that "almost anything uses more energy than watching TV." Watching television may also jeopardize our emotional health. I clearly remember the Thursday night I decided to switch off the television. I was dragging myself to bed, depressed yet again. I realized that this depression was a pattern — one that was directly traced to the human misery I watched weekly on ER. I started reading instead, and my mood, just like that of 7-year-old, improved dramatically. Finally, children can suffer academically when they watch too much TV. Jean Healy of Harvard reports that watching too much TV instead of reading actually influences the physical structure of the brain, making it harder to succeed in school. And Dr. Brock found that kids who don’t watch TV have longer attention spans, fewer cases of ADD, read more, and — are you ready for this? — usually receive straight As.
2. TV-Free Families are Close and Harmonious When kids constantly watch other children engaged in petty squabbles, insulting their siblings, and berating their parents, their impressions of family life can become seriously distorted. Even worse, they may not have time to fix these misconceptions, because television is replacing the time children would normally spend with their parents and with each other. The average child spends only 38.5 minutes a week in meaningful conversation with his or her parents. Yet in families where the TV has been eliminated, children spend over one hour each day communicating with their parents. TV can also undermine sibling relationships. Without TV, children need each other for entertainment. With TV, children often squabble over which show to watch, or separate into their own rooms to watch different shows. Dr. Brock’s study found that 70 percent of families reported fewer sibling fights after they eliminated TV.
3. TV-Free Families Have Better Behaved Kids TV doesn’t just lower grades and cause sibling squabbles, it can also directly affect bad behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that the evidence of the correlation between violence and TV viewing, for instance, is incontrovertible. And pediatrician Dr. Thomas Robinson found in a 2001 study that TV also produced greedy kids. Those who didn’t watch TV made far fewer requests for new toys than kids who did. I can attest to this with personal experience. Normally, I can walk my two daughters through a toy store without being subjected to whining and pleading and tugging to get a special toy. But after spending one weekend watching TV at a friend’s house, that peace evaporated. Now my girls wanted all the toys they had seen advertised. We don’t need studies to tell us that TV can change our kids, though. Think about this: if television didn’t influence behavior, would corporations be willing to shell out billions of dollars in advertising each year?
How to Tune Out We know the reasons to switch off, and we may yearn for the benefits of living TV-free, but let’s face it: the television habit is hard to break. Here are some suggestions to help you tune out: —Participate in TV Free Week this year. —Relegate the television to an out-of-the-way place, such as a dark corner in the basement. Take television sets out of all bedrooms (this means parents,too!). —Get rid of your satellite dish or unsubscribe to cable. Take the money that you save and use it to do something fun with your family. —Limit children to a certain number of hours of TV per week, and make a television log to plan these. —Make a list of all the things your children like to do for fun, and place it somewhere prominent, like on the fridge. Then children can choose something to do when they’re bored. —Take your children to the library. —Limit young children to public television, which has no commercials and generally higher quality programming. —Consider limiting TV time to videos so that it’s easier to control what kids watch. —Turn off the TV during dinner, and designate certain hours as "TV Free" when the family does something together.
As parents, we are constantly struggling to carve out more time in our busy schedules to spend with our families. Yet for most of us, several hours per day could be freed up simply by switching off the TV. It’s a big leap to make, but let’s reclaim the time that television has stolen. Once you’ve started living TV free, even if only for a week, you’ll never want to go back.
SHEILA WRAY GREGOIRE is the author of the upcoming book ‘To Love, Honor and Vacuum: When You Feel More Like A Maid Than a Wife and Mother’. Her website is: www.sheilawraygregoire.com. ———————————————————————
For more information on TV-Turnoff Week, contact TV Turnoff Network: (202) 518-5556, or access: www.tvturnoff.org.
Good TV-watching Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement last year cautioning parents to avoid any television viewing for children under age 2, and urging restricted viewing for older children, it also gave a collective thumbs up to a smattering of commonsense tips surrounding kids’ television viewing. The ultimate responsibility, the AAP suggests, lies in the hands of parents, who should consider creating electronic and media-free environments in children’s rooms, encourage alternative activities, and monitor TV viewing time. Parents should become critical TV-watching partners who openly discuss program content with their children. Karen Jaffe, executive director of KIDSNET, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization specializing in kids and their use of multimedia, notes that while an entire day of television is a bad idea for the very young, there are "certain opportunities for parents who want to expose children to media, who know the child and can use it as an enriching experience." Even if kids see "bad things" on TV, parents can help them make critical decisions by discussing events and eliciting questions, Jaffe points out. Several new studies actually show that watching "good TV" can make kids less aggressive, teach moral values and heighten academic skills. The bottom line, say the experts, is that television is not inherently bad as long as programs are appropriate for the viewing child, and that TV-watching parameters are realistically set and followed. —K.M.