Turning off TV for a week: It's not just for the boob tube anymore

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Remember TV-Turnoff Week? It is no more.

It is now called Screen-Free Week.

Organizers of the annual weeklong voluntary blackout of TV recognize that TV isn't the only screen where children -- and adults -- go for mindless entertainment. In fact, when Billy Crystal can joke during the Oscars about people watching movies on their cellphones, you know the phenomenon is no longer a phenomenon and has instead entered the mainstream.

How many kinds of screens do we have? Let's do a rough tally: Televisions; computers; tablets, like the iPad; E-readers, like the Kindle; and smart phones. Plus the software that drives all these: Video games; game systems; DVDs; websites; and mobile apps.

As the types of screens have increased, so too has our time in front of those screen. According to one of Screen-Free Week's principal sponsors, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, preschool children now spend 32 hours a week in front of screens. That's nearly one-fifth of the entire week, and that percentage looks much worse once you subtract all the overnight sleep and nap time little kids need. Older children spend even more time in front of screens.

This year's Screen-Free Week is April 30-May 6. If a child has to be at a computer to do homework, that's one thing. But with spring in the air, there's simply no need to depend on TV, computer or phones for entertainment. And there's no law that says that anyone has to wait until April 30 to observe Screen-Free Week.

It wasn't that long ago when my daughter had a great time at a school friend's birthday party -- so much so that three other party invitees came over to our house for an impromptu post-party play date. But after just an hour, they ran out of ways to amuse themselves and defaulted to a DVD from the 1980s cable series "Faerie Tale Theatre." I found that a bit discouraging.

The next day, a Sunday, my daughter asked after dinner if she could please (and for emphasis, you can italicize and underline "please") watch TV. Sorry, I told her, but no; she had joined her school's TV-VG Turnoff Club (the "VG" stands for "video game"), and she had opted for the "gold" level, which means no TV on school nights. As educational as it is, "Martha Speaks" would just have to wait for a Monday when no school is in session.

Screen-Free Week organizers have assembled a resource kit to help adults deal with situations like this, and to head them off at the pass. Go to stlouisreview.com/1FA to sign up for the kit.

The number of organizations that have endorsed Screen-Free Week is impressive. A partial list includes the Alliance for Childhood, the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, the Association for Waldorf Schools of North America, Black Kids Read, the Center for Public Health Nutrition, the Center on Media and Child Health, the National Black Child Development Institute, the National Head Start Association, the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, the National WIC Association and the US Play Coalition, plus numerous state, county and local groups. They all see the value in doing something other than being glued to the tube for a majority of your waking hours.

"Since external entertainment sources like television demand that our brains perform only in certain ways, we need to create downtime away from screens," said a statement from Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health.

"Only when children have the potential of being bored will their brains jump in and begin to invent and create," he said. "So do yourself and your children a favor and turn off the screens this week, if only to see what happens when the prepackaged entertainment stops and your brains can wander wherever they may."

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