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Americans Turn Off TVs to Turn <i>On</i> Family Life

Many American families have been forgoing their favorite TV programs this week as participants in National TV-Turnoff Week. Now in its 11th year, the National TV-Turnoff Network - the non-profit group behind the annual event -- is gaining support from families across the United States -- and around the world.

According to the TV-Turnoff Network, American children watch about 3 hours of television a day and spend more than 2 hours a day engaged in other screen-time activities, including working at a computer, watching videos and playing video games. That's not healthy. For years, critics have charged that television programs and commercials glorify violence and foster unhealthy eating habits. Scientific studies have shown a link between excessive television watching and childhood obesity, attention-deficit-disorder and other childhood maladies.

National TV-Turnoff Network director Frank Vespe says his organization's mission is not to eliminate television altogether but to encourage children and adults to watch less of it - in their words, to "turn off TV and turn on life."

"An important part of development and an important part of helping kids grow up healthy and well-adjusted is helping them have a wide variety of experiences," Mr. Vespe says. "This includes interacting with other people, playing games, playing sports, music, reading, all kinds of different things. And kids can't have all these different experiences if they're glued to screens all the time."

The TV-Turnoff Network expects that as many as 8 million viewers will kick the television habit this week. Voice of America journalist Rachel Eitches is one of those parents participating in the program. The first thing her 3 daughters (a 13-year-old and 9-year-old twins) used to do when they came into the house was turn on the television. "It sort of killed communication," she says.

Ms. Eitches says she is concerned that her daughters are too fond of television. They weren't very happy about having to stop watching it this week.

"They believe that if they could just find the right things (to watch), then Mom would let them watch TV whenever they wanted," she says, "but my idea is that TV takes up too much time in their lives. There are a lot of things kids can do when they're not watching something all the time. And I felt that we really needed to get control as parents over how our kids spend the little time they have in the house."

Ms. Eitches says her children prefer programs created especially for kids - cartoons in particular - but even those seem to be more sophisticated today than they were in years past. "There's a lot of chasing, a lot of violence, there's a lot of sex. And a lot of times the jokes they have are mean or rude or just in bad taste." She adds, "You can't always be there to say, 'Weren't they rude to that person?' You figure kids are learning a lot of behavior patterns that (might) later come up."

TV-Turnoff Network Director Frank Vespe says he believes the prominence of American television in worldwide markets has also had an influence on television viewing habits around the world. And he says for the first time this year, other countries are joining the U.S. in the TV-free movement. "This includes Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Italy, (and ) Norway," he says. "So this is a movement that is really taking root here, but more and more it's beginning to catch fire all over the world."

National TV-Turnoff Week, which takes place every April, is one of several programs sponsored by the TV-Turnoff Network that promotes healthier living through less screen time. In addition to their partnership with the American Society of Pediatrics, the Network is lobbying for better regulation of the use of television in public spaces. The group is challenging the apparently widespread notion that wherever people go, they should have a bright television screen within sight at all times. The T-V Turnoff Network thinks people who venture out of their homes should get at least a bit of a break from television's flickering images.