Tune Out TV: Turn On LIFE!

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In April 2002, hundreds of thousands of children across the country participated in TV Turnoff Week. They switched off the tube and biked to libraries, played Monopoly, and talked to their parents.

Full441.gifWhat 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 2003’s TV Turnoff Week. With more and more organizations involved each year, it’s likely to be bigger than ever. This year, why not take part? Tune out TV and turn on life!

Our Television Addiction

Most of us would admit – albeit grudgingly – that watching less television 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. Barbara Brock, Ph.D., professor of recreation management at Eastern Washington University, recently studied a growing movement across the country of families who have tuned out – either by eliminating television altogether or at least by watching less than one 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 television are experiencing instead:

TV Free Kids Are Healthier In Every Way

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 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 the Frisbee or playing tag. You’re also more likely to grab snacks than if you’re up and active. Finally, your body actually burns fewer calories sitting watching television than sitting in a room staring at a blank TV screen. William Detz, M.D., of the Centers for Disease Control concludes that “almost anything uses more energy than watching television.”

Watching television also jeopardizes our emotional health. I clearly remember the Thursday night I decided to switch off the television. I was dragging myself to bed, despondant 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 Drew, improved dramatically.

Children also suffer academically when they watch too much television. Jean Healy of Harvard University reports that watching television instead of reading actually influences the physical structure of the brain, making it harder to succeed in school. And Brock found that kids who don’t watch television have longer attention spans, fewer cases of ADD, read more and – are you ready for this? – usually receive straight A’s.

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 you 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 television has been eliminated, children spend more than one hour each day communicating with their parents.

With it, children often squabble over which show to watch or separate into their own rooms to watch different shows. Brock’s study found that 70 percent of families reported fewer sibling fights after they eliminated television.


TV Free Families Have Better Behaved Kids

Television doesn’t just lower grades and cause sibling squabbles, it also directly affects behavior. The AAP says that the evidence of the correlation between violence and television viewing, for instance, is incontrovertible. And Thomas Robinson, M.D. found in a 2001 study that television also produced greedy kids. Those who didn’t watch it made far fewer requests for new toys than kids who did.

I can attest to this by personal experience. Normally, I can walk my two daughters through Toys ‘R’ Us without being subjected to whining, pleading and tugging to get a special toy. But after spending a weekend watching television 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 television 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 yearn for the benefits of living television 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 Turnoff 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. (Yes, parents, this means you, too!)
  • Get rid of your satellite dish or unsubscribe to cable. Take the money you save and use it to do something fun with your family.
  • Limit the children to a certain number of hours of television 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 television 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 a planned activity together.

Television can also undermine sibling relationships. Without it, children need each other for enter 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 would be freed up simply by switching off the television.

It’s a big leap to make, but you can 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 a mother and freelance writer.

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