A town's TV-turnoff

For Jenny Goralnick, age three, going without television for a month wasy easy. "I played with my toys," she says. "I did my puzzles. I colored. I played with my Strawberry Shortcake dolls and the carriage."

Among many other activities, she went to the library. she went to gymanastics. She went to a nearby chidren&s Museum twice, where she "picked up crabs and petted and tickled a fish, and he splashed me all wet." with the frank understatement of a tree-year-old, she says, "I was so busy I didn't miss TV."

For some others, the month-long campaign to forgo television in this small central-Conneticut town was not so easy. Ryan Baldwin, a fifth-grade student at the West District Elementary School says he shut the TV off for a couple of days. But, he says, "I couldn't make it for a whole week."

The weather was bad the week he tried, so he couldn't go outside, and "there was nothing much else to do." Ryan says he usually watches a lot of TV, as much as five hours a day.

He is not alone. Convinced that children are spending much too much time watching television, the Farmington Library Council and the town Board of Education sponsored a month-long "TV-turnoff" in January.

Nancy DeSalvo, president of the Library Council, says it started out as "a little-bitty idea" to encourage children and their parents to think more about the amount of time invested in TV viewing. Little did she and others here know that it would balloon into a world-wide media event, attracting attention from Australia to Italy and almost everywhere in between.

Mrs. DeSalvo says concern about children's viewing habits has been increasing among libarians and educators in Farmington. It was time to do something about it, she says, and she approached the Board of Education with proposal to pull on the town's TV sets.

In November, the board passed a resolution urging Farmingtonians to "eliminate or drastically reduce" TV viewing in January. (Mrs. DeSalvo says the words "drastically reduce" were included because some people balked at the prospect of missing the Superbowl.)

William Striech, superintendent of schools in Farmington, says there was ample reason to support the turnoff campaign. He says a survey of about 300 school-children in California showed "the one activity integrated in all aspects of their lives was TV viewing.

"These kids were spending 30 hours per week in school and 30 hours watching TV," Dr. Striech says. By the time they graduate from high school, these chidren will have spent 12,000 hours in school and 15,000 hours watching TV, he says. And his own research indicateds "our kids aren't much different."

Mrs. DeSalvo says the actual number of Farmington residents who turned off their sets is not high. But the target group was not the town's 17,000 residents. "Our target group was always the children, the preschool and school-age kids, and their parents," she says. Among this group, she sats, "we feel we have been very successful."

Mrs. DeSalvo says it's very important for people to give more thought to the amount of time they spend glued to the tube. As children's libarian in Farmington, she regularly reads books to children. Ten years ago, she could read much harder books to them. "Their listening skills are way down.

"If I go in to read to a first-grade class with 20 students, there will be eight or nine who will be absolutely turned off when I pick up a book," she says. "If they don't have something highly visible like 'Sesame Street' flashing at them, they cannot seem to sit down quietly and listen to a story. I go and find books that I use with my two- and three-year-olds to keep that class entertained," she says. "It's frightening to me."

Mrs. DeSalvo says she's the first to admit there are good programs on TV. "What we were attacking was the amount of time they watch ," she says. "We would like the child who now watches six or seven hours a day to cut back to one or two hours," she says.

"We're saying to parents that the preschooler who is watching 30 hours per week -- one-third of his waking time -- is spending that time not doing a lot of other things. Things such as using more than two senses, being challenged, exercising imagination, practicing communication skills, or being creative or constructive," she says.

Harvey Dutil, principal of the West District Elementary School, says the TV turnoff is not an anti-TV story. "It's a pro-reading, pro-family life, pro-creativity story," he says.

Dr. Dutil conducted a survey in his school midway through the experiment. He found that 27 percent of the children had not watched any television in the preceding week. Another 58 percent had watched five hours or less. In essence, he says, only 15 percent of the kids watched more than five hours.

A similar survey he took last year showed more than 50 percent of the children watched more than 30 hours a week. This figure, Dutil says, is about the national average.

According to a report released by A.C. Nielsen last month, the average household watched a record seven hours and two minutes every day in 1983. Dutil says most people hear such statistics and say, "Oh, that's not me."

But, he says, many people aren't aware of the amount of time they spend watching the box. The experiment formed a "sort of support group," he says, creating a safe environment to encourage people to try going without TV.

And the environment did help. Mrs. DeSalvo says one single mother had a difficult time getting her teen-agers to agree to the moratorium on TV. But, she recounts, the children's grades in school went up during the month. And Although the TV is on again, the mother has struck a contract with the kids, limiting their TV time.

Another woman with six children, ranging in age from three to 14, says: "I've been trying to cut down for a long time. This gave the children an incentive, and also backed me up."

Many success stories have come out of the TV turnoff. Principal Dutil says he has received comments from teachers about positive changes in students. They are more attentive and less tired, he reports. Other teachers have noted generally improved grades.

One Farmington schoolgirl says that in her month without TV, she read more books and played games. But beyond that, she says, "I finally found enough time to clean that messy room of mine. It took 2 1/2 hours!"

Christopher Scott, a fifth grader, didn't fare as wll. He didn't last two weeks without the TV. But, he says, he doesn't watch much. He says TV turnoff was a good idea, "because if you just sit there and watch it, you're not learning very much."

Gina DeCaprio, another fifth grader, also had a hard time. No one else in Gina's family participated in the experiment, not even her five-year-old brother. When other members of her family turned on the set, she says she went into her room and do homework or read.

In spite of this challenge, Gina thinks TV turnoff is "a good idea for people who can stant it." She says it's something that should be repeated. "People should try it once in a while," she says, "and if they can't make it to the end of the month, maybe they can try again later."

Mrs. DeSalvo says that, yes, the TV turnoff should probably be an annual event, but with the attention she and the town have recieved since the project began, she's not sure she wants to be inolved.

Mrs. DeSalvo says she gave hundreds of interviews to reporters, appeared on national TV, programs in Boston and New York, and was interviewed by reporters from Australia, England, France, Spain, and Italy. In addition, she's received latters from dozens of towns across the US that would like to try their own TV turnoffs.

Dutil doesn't think children will go back to watching as much TV as they did before the experiment. To help ensure that, and to further promote the reading habit, he kicked off a reading Olympics campaign immediately after TV turnoff ended. The goal is for each student to read at least 20 minutes per day. The classes with the most students meeting the goal will win medals.

Streich says many people rationalize the reasons they watch so much TV. Some people say, "Oh, I never miss 'Masterpiece Theater' or the news," he says. Yet if they were to keep a log, it would not be mostly news they were watching, he says. More likely, it would be "The Dukes of Hazzard."

"The viewing og television is though by many to be a somewhat illegitimate pursuit," he says. "Yet we pursue it, and pursue it, and pursue it. The value of this experiment has been for some families to examine the time they give it," he says.

"If you want watch the news, watch it. Hey, if its fun to watch the 'Dukes of Hazzard,' watch it." But, he says, don't watch one program and te next and the next. Go to the TV with some purpose, and enjoy it. But, he adds, then turn it off.

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