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When it comes to TV, moderation is the key

Sunday, April 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

I hate this week. It's not because of pollen or some tragic anniversary. It's because of National TV-Turnoff Week, which begins Thursday. It's the one week a year a Washington, D.C.-based group encourages schools and families to switch off the boob tube and get off the couch.

I have no problem with this notion, but media literacy should be practiced year-round. Children should be taught about TV and its effects; they shouldn't just be told to turn the thing off.

In years past, TV Turnoff Week has coincided with the first week of the May sweeps period. But this year it arrives early. Thank goodness. If I were participating I'd hate to miss one of the last episodes of "The Nanny." Just kidding, of course.

You may think my concerns are self-serving, after all, without TV I'd be out of a job. Actually, I applaud the idea of people watching less TV.

There are better ways to spend your time, but TV is as legitimate a form of art/entertainment as movies, theater, art shows, etc. Just as you wouldn't spend every waking moment staring at a painting by Van Gogh, there's no reason to spend all day watching TV.

Moderation is key.

Rather than plopping down on the couch and just flipping through the dial, get out your TV Week and circle the shows you want to watch. That's what I do. Other than watching the news, I don't turn the TV on unless I know there's something I want to watch.

For parents, it's really easy to use TV as a baby-sitter, and I suppose there are times that can't be avoided. A better approach is to limit TV time and ask the child to pick out just a few shows to watch - and that's it.

I wouldn't allow kids to have TVs in their room, and if I were a parent I'd try to watch TV with my kids as often as possible. That way if something questionable comes on, the parent is there to explain it to the child.

According to the Web site for TV-Free America, the group that organizes TV-Turnoff Week, ignoring the box for a week "helps move beyond the old discussions about program content and instead focuses on what all TV-viewing displaces: creativity, productivity, healthful physical activity, civic engagement, reading, thinking and doing."

The group claims more than 12 million people have participated in TV Turnoff Week since it began in 1995 and suggest the week offers people the opportunity to "rediscover that life can be more constructive, rewarding, healthy - even informed - with more time and less TV."

There's no doubt that's true. I just question the approach. It's like rote memorization - you may be able to pass the test, but you don't learn anything.

In her book "TV-Proof Your Kids" ($12, Citadel Press, 1997), author Lauryn Axelrod advocates more sensible methods.

"As parents, we do have the opportunity to use the techniques of media literacy in our own homes to help our children understand what they are learning from TV, be more critical of what they see, reduce the amount of television they watch ... and arm them against the negative influence of television messages," Axelrod writes.

Just as children need to be taught rules about talking to strangers, playing in the street and saying "thank you," TV guidelines need to be taught. A few of Axelrod's suggestions:

No TV before school.

No TV before or during homework and chores.

No TV during meals.

No TV after a certain time on school nights.

No TV when friends visit.

No TV during quiet times or before napping.

TV is turned off when shows are over.

Even if you unplug the box this week, TV won't go away. It will still be there when the week is over.

Instead of ignoring the TV completely this week, think about its role in your life and your children's lives. Maybe by talking about TV and thinking critically about what's on the tube, viewers can find their way to a life of more educated TV viewing. Only then will the shackles of TV be broken.

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