During the week of April 23, students from
local school districts will join millions of children
across America participating in National TV-Turnoff
Students, and hopefully their parents, will turn
off their televisions and vacate their video game
worlds for seven consecutive days. Instead, they will
think, read, create, play and simply spend time
Millions of families have taken part since this
annual event began in 1995. So far as we know, all
have survived to tell about it.
"Television is chewing gum for the eyes,"
celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright said.
Television can be educational and informative and even
enjoyably and harmlessly entertaining, but
increasingly, it is instead violent and oversexualized.
It glamorizes such vices as tobacco, alcohol and
drugs. Evidence of the harmful effects of televised
substance abuse, sex and violence on children and
adolescents is as compelling as the evidence that
smoking causes lung cancer.
Television and other screen media are an enormous
and growing presence in children's lives. As parents
are increasingly overworked and overstressed, it has
come to be less that we are letting our children watch
television and more that we are asking television to
watch our children.
It is not a matter of being a "good" or "bad"
parent. Rather, it is a result of our failure to value
and protect parents' right to enjoy quality time with
Consuming media now far surpasses creative, active
and social pursuits as the average American child's
favorite pastime. Between television, video games and
computers, the average child logs 40 hours of screen
time every week - more than any activity besides
On average, children in the U.S. will spend more
time in front of the television than in school.
We are raising a generation of digital children,
wired but disconnected. As the solitude of screen time
replaces the togetherness of family time, detachment
replaces attachment. Even if it is spent in the
company of other children or family, screen time is
little more than shared aloneness.
Trust in others comes from a childhood of shared
life experiences. Endless hours of mindless screen
time amounts to a childhood filled with empty
Given that the primary purpose of childhood is to
develop competencies for life, children who are raised
detached from humanity are less likely as adults to be
capable of empathy and consideration, and less willing
or able to contribute in meaningful ways to their
Parents are largely clueless about the
media-saturated world their children inhabit. Viewing
television together as a family is critical, but
increasingly uncommon. That's unfortunate, given that
a child uses media to learn about culture, but
typically lacks the knowledge and experience to
recognize what is unrealistic and to discriminate
between advertising and programming.
Our children now see the world largely through the
eyes of advertisers and media corporations. More than
$15 billion is spent annually on marketing to
children. Given that the average child sees 20,000
commercials annually, and that children highly
influence family purchasing decisions, profit-driven
corporations cannot help but exploit this enormous
source of revenue.
No force is more central to children's food choices
than media. The vast majority of marketing to children
involves foods and drinks high in fat, added sugar and
salt. Our media say "Lose weight! Look fit!" But at
the same time, they shout at our children to "Eat!
Drink! Buy!" It is deplorable how food producers
seduce children into eating foods that are good for
profits but bad for health.
Screen time is directly related to obesity - not
surprising, given the average of nine food and drink
commercials per half-hour of children's programming.
Children who watch four hours of screen media daily
have a 30 percent risk for obesity - even higher if
the TV is in their bedroom - while the risk falls to 7
percent for children whose daily viewing averages less
than one hour.
Television and video games are neither inherently
good nor bad. They are resources, and when used wisely
for children older than the age of 2 years and limited
to less than two hours daily, they can exert a
positive or at least harmless influence. But the
negative effects of each are real and powerful.
For one week, turn them off and see.
Todd Huffman, M.D., is a pediatrician practicing