Electronic babysitter

April 28, 1995

Children have a capacity for sitting in front of the glowing screen for hours, stifling more important and imaginative types of play, educators and child psychologists agree. Parents, too, are becoming concerned, even though they find it a struggle to monitor the use of the machine. Meanwhile, members of Congress are weighing legislation to curb the obscene nature of some of the material accessible to kids.

We're talking about television, right?

Wrong. Personal computers.

Therein lies the problem with the National TV-Turnoff campaign this week. If it's not TVs, it's the emerging use of PCs; next generation, it'll be something else.

Some families this week have been participating in the first national version of the TV Turnoff, an event born 21 years ago in Denver. It was spearheaded by a woman named Marie Winn, who wrote several guides for withdrawal from the "plug-in drug."

Regarding the symptoms of overdosing on television, one would be hard-pressed to find much dispute: Too much television does contribute to obesity, especially in children. TV offers a sickening smorgasbord of freaks and trash talk, especially during the day. And though it has the power to meld a global village, television isn't nearly as personal and socializing a force as a child's sandbox, a checkerboard or a coffee pot, to name a few more humble inventions.

But the need for a TV-Turnoff Week seems as unnecessary as . .TC warning label on a hammer. The cause of children watching too much TV is obvious: It's the cheapest, most effective baby-sitter ever made. Someday, robot housekeepers may tend our children, but until then, there's TV. Some participants in Ms. Winn's earlier TV fasts said they hastened back to their old habits because the alternative mode of family life took too much time and discipline.

TV remains a tool of great utility. So are the microwave oven and garbage disposal, but parents wouldn't let their kids misuse those. Perhaps TV's pitfalls aren't as obvious, or perhaps parents have trouble policing television viewing in their homes because they themselves invest the equivalent of a full waking day each week in front of the set, Nielsen surveys show. It's ironic, though, that a society that seems to harbor less and less tolerance for people not taking command of their lives could wallow in its own lack of control over television.

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