The Silent Screen : Pupils Give Up TV to Raise Money for Playground Equipment


For two grueling weeks, Brett DeCarlo, 11, has had to go it alone: no MTV, no "Star Trek," no "Who's the Boss?"

"I know it's good not to watch too much television," the fifth-grader said glumly. "But it's hard. . . . I don't even know who shot Data on 'Star Trek.'

"To be honest, I don't know how much longer I can last."

Brett and about 60 other Summit Elementary School students are in the midst of a "No TV-a-thon," in which students have volunteered to refrain from television viewing four nights a week for five weeks.

The students are sponsored by parents and others who have pledged a donation for each of the 20 days the pupils do not watch television. The average contribution is $20, school officials said.

The money will go toward the purchase of new playground equipment at the 155-student public school, located between Ojai and Santa Paula.

Richard Scribner, the father of three Summit students, said he organized the event as a way to bring households split by television back together.

"We hope families will use this time to talk to each other, to get to know each other again," said Scribner, a research professor in preventive medicine at USC. He is writing a book that includes discussion about the harmful effects of heavy television watching.

Scribner, who said his own family watches television only sporadically, believes television's effects on overindulgent viewers can be similar to those of other addictions.

"The medium is a darkened room where no one talks to each other for four to six hours a day, seven days a week," Scribner says, darkly. "In children, it's been linked to obesity, hyperactivity, poor school performance. You don't exercise . . . you just atrophy. It's a drug, in a sense."

Scribner said parents who use television sets as "baby-sitters" to keep children from becoming bored are actually doing a disservice.

"Creativity and the ability to do things comes when you're bored," Scribner said. "Creativity comes when you are forced to generate the idea to create the idea. TV cuts that out because it generates the ideas for you."

Julie Kuehnel, chairwoman of the psychology department at Cal Lutheran University, agrees, but also sees a positive side.

"I don't think we can paint all television with one broad brush," Kuehnel said. "Some things, like 'Sesame Street' and 'Mr. Rogers,' are very good and educational. Where we get into trouble is when we start overdoing it . . . when it gets up to four or six hours a day."

To help students and parents adapt to long evenings without television, the rural school has held a number of "alternative events nights," which have ranged from moonwalks to a bingo night.

"This is a wonderful idea," said Kit Stolz as his fourth-grade daughter scampered around the school room where a bingo night was taking place. "But it is a sacrifice. I mean, I'm missing the Lakers game right now."

Despite the necessity of making adjustments, most students who are participating in the No TV-a-thon say they have dropped television like, well, a bad habit.

"I would watch about two hours a day because I was hooked," said 11-year-old Andrea Richie, a sixth-grader who counts "Saved by the Bell" and "Full House" among her favorite programs. "But since I stopped watching, I've been talking with my mom and dad more, and my 16-year-old brother.

"Before, we would just watch TV together," she said of her brother, Ivan. "Now, I feel like I know him better."

Others have had rougher transitions, and have a more difficult time mastering an uncontrollable urge for a quick TV fix.

"Sometimes you want to watch so bad, but you can't," said sixth-grader Katie Schmit. Instead, the 11-year-old said, she has studied, sold Girl Scout cookies and talked to her toy animals.

Zoe Towns, a 9-year-old third-grader, said she spends most of her newfound spare time outdoors. "I usually play in the mud with my next-door neighbors," she said. She said she has also memorized a 12-page script for a play.

Brett DeCarlo who said he had spent more time studying, planned to load up on television on the weekends, when the No TV-a-thon allows unlimited TV viewing.

"I'm going to have a friend sleep over," Brett said. "I'll probably be pooped too much to do much of anything, so I'm just going to sit and watch TV all weekend."

And Katie said the increase in family interaction that the No TV-a-thon has heralded has not been all positive.

"I haven't been getting along with my 16-year-old sister lately," she admitted. "And even though I think not watching TV is a good idea, I wonder if we fought as much when we were watching television."

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