THE GLOBAL CITIZEN: National TV Turnoff Week

I can see how television could be addicting. When I stay at a hotel, I can waste a whole evening surfing all those channels, letting nonstop idiocy wash over me, too lazy, too hooked, too amazed to hit the off switch. When I finally come to my senses, first I feel terrible about devoting hours of my life to such junk, then I feel thankful that at home we only get two channels.So I appreciate Henry Labalme's idea of a TV-Turnoff Week.Young, quiet, amazingly energetic, Labalme was working at an environmental engineering firm in the 1980s, when he and his friend Matt Pawa, then a law student, used to talk about saving the world. Henry was worried about the way mindless consumption consumes the stuff of nature. Matt was bothered by violence, illiteracy, incivility, intolerance. Both saw TV as a major cause of these problems.For years they just talked, until Matt took some time off to be a house-husband and did the legal work to set up an organization called TV-Free America. Then he told Henry, OK, I've got it on paper, now you make it happen. Henry hesitated. He had a good job. But he pictured himself as an old man looking back and wishing he had followed his heart instead of his pocketbook. So he took a leave of absence that turned out to be permanent.Labalme expected the idea of life without television to be met with resistance. Instead he found himself riding a wave of enthusiasm. "I can't believe you exist," people told him. "We thought we were the only ones who were disgusted by TV."TV-Free America held its first National TV-Turnoff Week last April. Four thousand schools signed up. The American Federation of Teachers and the American Medical Association supported it. A volunteer sent a kit to Governor Angus King of Maine, who held a press conference to praise the 25 participating Maine schools. Four more governors signed on. "We never expected a governor to endorse us," says Labalme. "We thought we were being too radical. Now we wonder if we're being radical enough."Phil Donahue invited TV-Free America to his show. That caused a brief moral crisis, ending in refusal. "To advocate turning off TV by going on TV seemed to us simply too great a contradiction," Labalme said in his newsletter. On his program Donahue said: "'No TV Week' -- yes, you heard it on the Donahue Show. They're promoting this nationwide, and they won't send anybody to our program to talk about it. Not only do they not want you to watch TV, they don't even want to be on it."The greatest enthusiasm for the week of TV abstinence came from kids. One school class made up a slogan: "What I can be if I don't watch TV." Comment cards filled out by teachers, students, and parents after the week was over showed clearly how TV eats into the lives of children.A sixth grader from Pennsylvania: "I got to spend a little time talking to my mom because she turned off the TV during dinner."A third grader from New Mexico: "I'm glad we had TV-Turnoff Week, because I probably wouldn't have gotten to do some of the things I got to do. Like, I wouldn't have gone hiking, spend lots of time with my family, play with my friends, go to Chaco Canyon."A teacher in Texas: "Many more children were enthusiastic than I anticipated. My family loved it, except for my husband."A parent in Wisconsin: "The kids were hesitant at first, but at the end of the week my 6-year-old was telling everyone how he doesn't like TV anyway. Now, three weeks later, no TV has become a habit, and it seems odd when the set is on!"This year TV-Turnoff Week is April 24-30. It has been endorsed by seven governors, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the American Psychiatric Association, the Family Research Council, and more. The American Medical Association sent out flyers to 20,000 schools. A businessman in Mississippi distributed posters at his own expense to all the schools in his state.Like Smoke-Out Day, TV-Turnoff Week gives us a chance to step away from our addiction -- or fail to and thus realize how badly addicted we are. Hundreds of studies have linked TV watching to 1) violence, 2) diminished brain development in children, 3) obesity and other eating disorders, 4) lack of physical fitness, 5) breakdown of community, 6) materialism, 7) excess consumer debt and 8) negative social norms, gender roles and patterns of conflict resolution. We can see the statistics play out in our own lives -- the average child spends half an hour a week in meaningful conversation with a parent, 1.8 hours a week reading for pleasure, 5.6 hours doing homework, and 28 hours watching television. Many of us are angry with ourselves for watching too much and for letting our children watch too much. But, like addicts, we don't stop.So here's a chance to stop, just for a week. We might discover that, as author Wendell Berry wrote to Henry Labalme, "It isn't as though we can entertain and instruct ourselves in no other way. We have the literature of several thousand years -- more than anyone can read in a lifetime. We have each other to talk to and listen to. Music can still be made locally. We can play and walk and dance without deference or payment to any organization. The world contains many beauties that we can look at directly, without the intervention of any equipment."Let us live our lives while we have them."You can contact TV-Free America at 202-887-0436.

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