California families turn off the TV, tune in to other activities

It was Friday night, and young David and Jeffrey Akers ``were practically in tears,'' their mother remembers. The brothers had pledged not to watch any television for a month, and they were missing their favorite show for the first time. ``There was a lot of griping and complaining during the first week,'' says their mom, Diane Akers. But she and her husband, John, changed the gripes into smiles that night by taking the boys out to eat at a '50s-style drive-in -- complete with giant malts and skating carhops.

But now, at the end of what is called the Great TV Turnoff for this Bay Area city of 80,000, television ``is not even an issue anymore,'' Mrs. Akers says. The TV, which sat blank and silent in January with a calendar taped across its screen, became so unimportant that David and Jeffrey sometimes forgot to check off another day completed without the Tube.

The Akers family turned off its TV as part of a campaign by the local library and the elementary school district here. Although San Mateo is not the first community to encourage children ``to go cold turkey,'' this marks the first time the experiment has been tried in a city so large and diverse, says children's librarian Linda Holtslander-Burton.

Mrs. Holtslander-Burton, whose eyes shine with an unabashed zeal for books, is the first to admit that the program was not as broad-based as she has hoped. ``Let's face it: Many children are really addicted -- and I guess you can say the same for adults,'' she says.

Still, like librarians elsewhere who have initiated local TV turnoffs, Holtslander-Burton says the patterns of TV viewing among children are so alarming that she was prompted to act.

``When parents first hear the statistics, they say: ``Are those statistics right? Is my four-year-old really watching 5,000 hours of TV [before his or her first day of school]?' '' Holtslander-Burton says.

She also points to a 1980 test of half a million students in nearby Oakland, Calif., which showed a strong correlation between academic performance and hours of TV viewing. The more time the student spent watching TV, the lower the score on an achievement test of reading, writing, and math skills, the state Department of Education reported.

Concern about the effect of TV on children first surfaced in the 1960s, and many educators since then have warned against watching more than an hour or two a day.

Then, in 1984, the town of Farmington, Conn., sponsored what is believed to be the first TV turnoff in the United States, and a handful of other communities soon followed suit. Farmington has renewed its public commitment each January since then, although the focus has shifted a bit. ``This year the emphasis was on getting kids to do other things,'' says Nancy DeSalvo, president of the Farmington Library Council. ``The real goal was never to completely cut out TV, but to reduce the number of hours children watch it.''

``We talked about it [television's effect on education] years ago,'' says Al Colum, principal of Sunnybrae, one of the city's 13 elementary schools taking part in the turnoff. ``But the children turn off the TV, and then what?''

But this time librarians were ready with alternatives to fill those TV-less hours: puppetmaking workshops, storybook hours, and special films. In addition, the San Mateo Public Library sponsored a bookmark-making contest and an essay contest through the schools.

At Sunnybrae, teachers have been keeping score and encouraging students to follow through on their pledges.

``I told my students, if you decide to watch TV, at least think about the program afterward,'' says Dorothy Boyajian, who teaches third- and fourth-graders. ``If you learned something, fine. If it just made you laugh, and you can't remember two days later what it was about, perhaps it wasn't worth watching.''

All the students in Ms. Boyajian's class pledged to try at least one day with no TV -- but some children didn't want to go much longer. Jesse K. Mileo, who lasted four days, found the experiment ``a little hard.'' Melissa Banducci, well into her third week with no TV, confessed that she still missed ``Kate and Allie,'' her favorite program.

Kristina deWood, whose whole family gave up TV for the month, said she devoted some time to reading ``The Little Princess,'' which she got for Christmas. ``It has 240 pages. I'm up to Page 150,'' she said, her voice swelled with pride.

Margaret deWood says her daughter has always liked to read, but she wants to encourage Kristina even more now that outside activites like ballet and soccer are competing for her time. During the month, the family played card games and board games -- and ``did a lot more reading,'' Mrs. deWood says.

``We've also drawn closer as a family,'' she adds. ``It's kind of nice to sit around the table and talk to each other rather than watching TV during dinner.''

The deWoods and Akerses both say they have always limited the children's viewing, an argument used by other families to rebut the need for a TV turnoff.

``We watch TV as a family. Things like the news or `The Brady Bunch,' '' says Shirley daMotta, mother of kindergartner Sandra and second-grader Brian. ``A month I knew we wouldn't have been able to do. And even if we did, I know mine wouldn't have been reading.''

Twenty to 30 percent of the Sunnybrae student body was actively involved in the campaign, Dr. Colum estimates. ``TV is a big part of kids' lives, and it's used in all kinds of ways -- as a baby sitter, for instance,'' he says. While recognizing the widespread need for both parents to work, Colum says he doesn't think ``we should abdicate our responsibility of supervising and guiding the young.''

Using feedback from parents, teachers, and students, leaders of the TV turnoff say they intend to analyze and adjust the program -- and then get ready for next year.

Librarian Holtslander-Burton, whose enthusiasm for the campaign has not waned one iota, says, ``We like to tell the students, `We'll be giving you back your imagination.' ''

It's the parents, however, who may first have need to plumb their imaginations -- just to keep their children happily occupied without TV. Even Margaret deWood, a working mother whose family enjoyed a number of new activities in January, says she'll be glad when they can all tune in again on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

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