Why should my family participate in Turnoff Week?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

It’s Turnoff Week, a campaign spearheaded by the American Academy of Pediatrics to encourage families to unplug all screen media for 7 days. Earlier today, pediatrician and mother of five, Clair McCarthy, MD, shared some tips on fun, creative activities families can engage in while the TV is off. Now, Children’s media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, offers insight into the medical and social benefits behind less screen time for children.

Q: I heard this week (Sept. 19-25, 2010) is TV Turnoff Week. Is it supposed to get TV viewers to go “cold turkey” so that some of them quit altogether? I don’t think that’s going to happen at my house, so is there some other good reason to participate?

-Being Realistic in Rochester, NY

Dear Realistic,

Turnoff Week, observed twice a year in the spring and fall, and recently broadened from TV to include all screen media, was originally started by a coalition of groups concerned about TV-related issues from addictive watching to advertising to violent content. Since there were so many groups involved, there were a wide variety of goals they were looking to achieve, but the central task of turning off electronic screens, even for a week, has potential benefits for all of us – especially for children.

TV, video games, and computers have become so common that, for many families, they are a default activity, rather than a choice they make about how they want to spend their time. With almost half of American homes having the TV on “most of the time” (whether anyone is watching or not) children are rarely required to give thought to what they want to do with their free time.

Research has shown that children who watch more TV not only learn to read later and read less, but, for some children, the ability to use their imaginations declines instead of develops as they get older. Preschool teachers report children who, when presented with play dough, ask “What does it do?” They already seek an “on” switch for it to begin to entertain them.  Pre-teens are in a stage of life where they can be wildly innovative because they have the ability to develop many unique ideas as well as to combine those ideas into new solutions to problems. However, this age group has been found to be less capable of imaginative problem-solving when they watch a lot of TV.

Since external entertainment sources like television demand that our brains perform only in certain ways, we need to create downtime away from screens. Only when children have the potential of being bored will their brains jump in and begin to invent and create. Fantasy, make-believe, and free play are essential building blocks to creativity – the #1 “leadership competency” identified by 1,500 CEOs polled by IBM. It is not just cramming facts into children’s brains, but giving them the unstructured “down time” to process those facts and come to their own conclusions, that will give them the richest environment in which to develop.

Current neuroimaging research is indicating another, equally important role for down time for the brain. When scientists placed research subjects in MRI machines to study brain activity, they saw that specific, task-oriented parts of the brain were activated when subjects were applying their focused attention to a problem. But it was between experiments — when the subjects were relaxing and “not thinking about anything in particular” — when scientists saw a large network of other neurons activate. Now there is growing evidence that these apparently random thoughts are actually where we develop, fine tune, and try out our sense of “self.” Science suggests that this kind of down time for our brain could be as important to our psychological well-being as sleep is to our physical well-being.

It is becoming increasingly clear that spacing out and daydreaming are not wasted time, but are actually important, perhaps even essential, to developing our creativity and sense of self. Out of boredom, interesting ideas arise. There was once a Swiss patent clerk who was so bored that he spent hours thinking about the patterns he saw on the river; he eventually came to propose the theory of relativity (E=mc2).  If Einstein had been constantly entertained by screen media, he never would have had the time to come up with this world-changing theory.

So do yourself and your children a favor and turn off the screens this week, if only to see what happens when the prepackaged entertainment stops and your brains can wander wherever they may.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

One thought on “Why should my family participate in Turnoff Week?

  1. I am in. We never watch TV in our home, only occasional cartoons on DVDs.

    And please, please, run a compaign for more down time and free unstructured play time in american pre-schools! My 4-year old wants to play so badly. It seems like he’s deprived of playtime in his classroom during the day since he’s comlaining sometimes that he was not allowed to play.Is it so important for kids at 4 years of age to do math, read and write letters? He’s doing it already, he’s bilingual, counts to 20 and does simple additions, knows all letters in both languages and reads words. We have always incorporated learning something new in our play time at home, but never with a sticker grade for his work. I am a little shocked how early education is so huge in the US and may be around the world these days. My husband and I started to read well at around 6-7 and did just fine! In fact, it takes much shorter time to learn to read when childrens’ brains are ready.

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