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Published: Saturday, 4/17/2004

Banning TV for a week tests resolve of parents

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - Parents, get ready to drop that remote and grab the crayons, jump ropes, and board games.

TV-Turnoff Week starts Monday.

The annual test of parental resolve is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. A record 7.5 million people are expected to unplug the TV set and participate in the weeklong celebration of life without television.

That's the largest number of TV-Turnoff participants ever, according to the organizers. They say support for the event has been buoyed by recent reports showing a connection between television and childhood obesity, as well as a potential link between toddlers' TV habits and attention-deficit disorder.

Michelle Waddell, a third-grade teacher at Frank Elementary School in Perrysburg, will be among those participating in TV-Turnoff Week. Ms. Waddell, who has three young children, is coordinating the school's TV-Turnoff Week activities, which include a crafts night at the local Michael's store, swimming at the YMCA, and a two-for-one coupon at a local golf center.

"We want people to know that there are other things to do besides sitting on your bottom in front of the TV," Ms. Waddell said. "Yes, it's hard. I myself really want to watch American Idol next week. It's definitely more effort on the part of parents."

With reports indicating that American children age 2 to 18 typically spend about 19 hours a week watching TV and that 26 percent of children under the age of 2 have TVs in their bedroom, has TV-Turnoff Week really had any impact over the

past decade?

Absolutely, says Frank Vespe, executive director of TV-Turnoff Network, the nonprofit group that sponsors TV-Turnoff Week. The group's Web site is www.tvturnoff.org.

"A decade ago, we certainly weren't talking about excessive television watching as a problem," Mr. Vespe said. "Now, everyone's talking about it. So, one thing we've done is just spark a lot of public debate about television viewing, getting people to examine the place of television in their lives."

But people aren't just talking about limiting TV time, they're actually doing something about it, he added. "For example, the percentage of kids who watch little or no TV has gone up significantly in the last 10 years."

He cited federal education statistics showing that 38 percent of kids watched one hour of TV or less in 2002, compared to 19 percent in 1994.

"In addition, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the percentage of kids under 12 who have rules limiting their TV viewing has increased from 63 percent to 72 percent over the past six years. That's 4 million kids,'' Mr. Vespe said.

Broadcasters' groups, however, say turning off the TV isn't necessarily a good thing because children need to learn their way around today's media-saturated world. Parents would do better to teach their children to be selective about what they watch, these groups say.

"To say, 'Turn it off,' doesn't allow for the fact that there are some really fabulous things available through the media," said Peggy O'Brien, director of Cable In the Classroom, a cable TV industry program offering educational and technology resources to U.S. public and private schools.

Ms. O'Brien's group just teamed with the National PTA to release a new guide designed to help parents and caregivers develop a plan for childrens' use of media, including television, computers, and video games. The report can be downloaded at www.ciconline.org.

"As media becomes more prevalent in our lives, parents really need to be savvy about this stuff," Ms. O'Brien added.

Guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends "no more than one to two hours of quality TV and videos a day for older children." Children under 2 shouldn't have any "screen time'' at all according to the pediatricians' group.

Mr. Vespe said his group understands that only a fraction of Americans would choose to live without television, as recommended by more radical group called Kill Your Television www.turnoffyourtv.com. The statistics back him up: Only 11 percent of parents have seriously considered getting rid of the TV, according to a 2002 study.

"We're not Luddites - we do live in the modern world," Mr. Vespe said. "Our message, in general, is that less is more."

In the last few years, the campaign to get people to limit their TV viewing has expanded to include limiting other types of "screen time,'' including computers, hand-held electronic devices, and video games, Mr. Vespe said. A new survey by Michigan State University has found, for example, that children are spending as much - if not more - time playing video games as they are watching television.

"We encourage people to make Turnoff Week a week away from all of the electronic screens," Mr. Vespe said.

"Right now, the combination of those electronic screens has overwhelmed all other activities except sleeping. If we want our kids to grow up active and engaged, we've got to teach them that."

A list of TV-free activities can be found at www.limittv.org/alternat.htm.

Contact Karen MacPherson at:

kmacpherson@nationalpress.com

or 202-662-7071.



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