Cutting the Cord: Living TV-Free

Think you can’t pry your kids away from the television screen? Think again. Researchers say a growing number of families nationwide have either limited or eliminated TV watching in their homes. The result has been more family time, and more imaginative, musical and book-loving kids. Take a page from these Massachusetts families, who are thriving without TV.

By Elizabeth Ichizawa

“How many TVs do you have in your house?” a teacher asked her class during a

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lesson on graphs. Answers ranged from two to nine. But one student admitted to having zero, at which the kids murmured in horror and sympathy.

One boy gasped, “How do you live?”

That’s exactly what recreation specialist Barbara Brock wanted to know about families who watch almost no television. In a nationwide study, the first of its kind, Brock, a professor at Eastern Washington University, surveyed 280 families who kept weekly TV viewing to less than six hours.

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">In many ways, these families – 80 percent watch less than one hour a week – were surprisingly average. They came from various demographics, but most were college graduates with kids, a house, two cars, and a religious affiliation. What wasn’t so average was the amount of time they had for hobbies, reading, and conversation – far more than most Americans, who instead clock on average four hours a day in front of the television set.

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">“These people weren’t overtly political or religious, and they weren’t snobs. For them the essence was time,” Brock says of the families she surveyed.

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">In households where TV was pulled out of the equation, Brock found families making time for music, talking and reading. She also found that:

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• more than 70 percent of TV-free children were involved in music;

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• children in families where TV watching was kept at a minimum displayed strong imaginations, evidenced by the long periods of time these kids spent in imaginative play and creative activities;

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• 41 percent of TV-free kids read for more than an hour a day; and

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• parents and children reported spending about an hour a day in meaningful conversation, in contrast to the national average of 38 minutes a week.

TV-Free in Massachusetts

FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Twenty years ago, when Theresa and Eric Natti of Gloucester first married, they decided to get rid of their television, and still declare it was the “best decision” they ever made for their marriage and their kids. The children Serika, 14, and Eli, 12, are both accomplished musicians, and the family has plenty of time to enjoy reading and talking together.

“We read Harry Potter – 800 pages aloud together – and savored and discussed every chapter,” Theresa Natti says. “My kids are comfortable with a book, with the world of ideas.”

Bobby and Sandy Weatherall of Ipswich keep their “postage-stamp-size” TV mostly tucked in a cabinet, wrestling with the antennae for special shows, or popping in a video every few months. Bobby, a timber framer, built their barn-inspired house on a plot of woods and fields. There’s a garden, a dozen chickens, four ducks and three kids: baby Carolina, Hayden, 4, and Grace, 9, who is home-schooled.

Grace admits there was a time that she felt awkward when her friends talked about television shows that she didn’t watch – she even pretended at times that she knew what the shows were about. But now, she says, she doesn’t care. She wakes up in the mornings to draw, reads a book a day, scrambles up trees, and clambers over stone walls.

“I go to (my friends’) houses to watch a movie, and they come to my house to play,” Grace says. “I don’t need toys to make up games. Sometimes my friend and I play we’re horses.”

Sandy Weatherall admits that her family tends to “march to a different beat,” but says they never really made a conscious decision to give up TV. “We evolved to the point where we said we don’t need it,” she says. “This is the path I want to take. You make choices. I think not having TV gives them more room to develop.”

Research supports that view. Because TV acts as a sedative on active toddlers and preschoolers, it’s tempting to use the television as an electronic babysitter, but studies show the passive nature of TV viewing can hinder verbal expression and thinking skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no TV viewing before age two and no more than one to two hours of total screen time (TV, videos, computers) per day for older kids. The average American child, however, spends three hours a day just watching television.

Frank Soo, a Boston College professor who teaches courses on family life, says that like any technology, television can be used for good or ill. “The interaction between parents and kids is tremendously important, and TV is a hindrance in this sense,” he says.

Soo worries about the negative consequences of TV, especially the messages of violence and consumerism aimed at young people, but he believes that it is possible to use TV wisely. “Children need to learn how to use freedom,” he says. If parents model responsible viewing, TV need not be harmful. Parents and children can select good programs, such as on PBS. They can watch news shows and discuss events and issues of social justice. TV is a point of reality. We have to help [kids] make judicious choices as they grow.”

An Encouraging Trend

The advent of hundreds of cable TV stations has turned the United States into a nation of channel surfers, and the average household has the set turned on for seven hours and 40 minutes a day. But Frank Vespe, founder of the TV-Turnoff Network, sees a counter trend.

“The tide is turning,” Vespe says. “The data shows kids are watching somewhat less. People are beginning to understand that too much TV has consequences.” In fact, one survey, sponsored by State Farm Insurance Company and the Family Friendly Program Forum, found that 22 percent of parents had considered getting rid of their television.

ZE: 10pt">TV-Turnoff Network may claim some credit for this trend with its promotion of TV-Turnoff Week every April. “It’s a brilliant idea because it takes people out of their routine” Vespe says. “It’s such a completely different experience that you learn about yourself and how you spend time.”

ZE: 10pt">And while parents may lament that their kids would never consider going without TV, Vespe says it is often the kis who are “gung-ho about TV-Turnoff Week, and the parents who have the hardest time.”

ZE: 10pt">Statistics on how many people have decided to swear off TV are hard to come by, but Brock says there are more people out there than we may think. When recruiting participants for her study, she had hoped to hear from maybe 20 such families, but she was flooded with more than 500 emails. “People came out of the closet. They wanted to talk about this,” she says.

ZE: 10pt">Still, there is a concern that, given today’s technologically oriented society, turning off the television just means that families are trading the television screen for computer and Game Boy screens. But as Vespe says, when the TV is off, there are a host of other activities that families have waiting for them, from playing with the dog to, yes, computer games, and he was encouraged to find that families didn’t always just replace television time with computer time.

ZE: 10pt">“We’re a society that embraces technology, but just exchanging TV for video games is not the answer,” he says.

ZE: 10pt">Encouragingly, the Brock study fund leisure-related computer use less than average among respondents: under three hours a week.

ZE: 10pt">After compiling 400 pages of case studies on individuals who have all but eliminated TV from their lives, Brock points to the reams of research on the impact of excessive TV on kids. Overexposure to television is implicated in the rise of childhood obesity and inactivity; violent behavior and poor impulse control; lax study habits and low reading scores; short attention spans and a consumer-oriented view of the world.

ZE: 10pt">“I don’t go in for cure-alls,” Brock says. “But it’s seems obvious that many societal ills could be alleviated by turning off the TV.”

And if you can’t bear the thought of being a TV-free house, Brock’s advice is to try to at least relegate it to a corner of life.  

Take action: Expert tips for cutting down on your kids' TV time.


Web links
Academy of Pediatrics National Media Education Campaign - Includes many articles about the impact of electronic media on the physiological, developmental and psychological health of children and adolescents. 

TV Turnoff Network The one-stop site for those interested in giving up or watching less TV. Inclues articles, advice, testimonials, research and many links.

Alternatives to TV Handbook: Engaging Experiences for Ages 1-12, by Marie McClendon, Whole Human Beans Co., 2001. Activities, ideas and advice for transforming your children from “couch potatoes to non-vegetating adventurers.”

TV and Me,
by Susan Leigh Brooks,
Cottonwood Press, 2000. A book of activities to help middle school kids look at the influence of TV on their lives. Topics include the power of commercials, freedom of the press and stereotypes.

Elizabeth Ichizawa is a freelance writer in Ipswich.