Now decades later, here I sit… still

Gene Deason

My parents often warned me, during my formative years, about the dangers of sitting too close to the television set. And yes, my own dear children, we had television sets when I was growing up.

Those warnings were not without merit. It would ruin your eyes. Radiation could cause unknown health problems. And what if the contraption caught fire?

Then there was the ultimate parental logic: “… because I said so.”

Never mind that the screens on those sets were barely 12 inches wide, and the quality of reception from the stations broadcasting from an adjacent big city left much to be desired. But given the unknowns of that still developing technology, their advice was probably prudent.

Decades later, here I am… still sitting too close to the screen. It’s mostly a computer screen these days, and aren’t we all guilty? Thankfully, radiation concerns have been eliminated (or have they?) and my eyes seem to be holding up pretty well, so far.

The danger these days, though, is not so much how close you sit, but how much time you spend sitting there. That’s especially so for children now that the hours devoted to screen-watching have been multiplied thanks to computers and smart telephones.

I read a few years ago that more American homes have television sets than have indoor plumbing, and that’s a sad state of affairs. That means people have to run to the backyard during commercials.

But the more you read about such things, the sadder it gets. For example, in the last three months of 2014 alone, more than 400 million new smart phones were sold worldwide. Add those numbers to the phones already in use, and the figures become unfathomable.

So, welcome to a weeklong initiative that began in the 1994 as “TV Turnoff Week,” but has lately been expanded to become “Screen-Free Week.” It will be observed nationally May 4-10 this year under the auspices of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Now there’s an impossible dream if I ever heard one.

The annual week was started in 1994 to encourage Americans to reclaim this time — which is often wasted — for more productive activities. I wrote about the observance maybe a decade ago, and was reminded of it last week. An accident that involved tree trimming and the overhead lines bringing utilities to the house temporarily left our home not only without television service, but also without Internet. It was a difficult two days.

Do we really think we’re not addicted to our screens? If not, take a drive through the city and watch how many motorists are more concerned about the map, the message or the material they see on their phone than they are about crashing their vehicle into yours.

If you’re still not convinced, consider these statistics, taken from various reliable sources:

• On any given day, 64 percent of children ages 1 to 2 watch television or videos for slightly more than 2 hours a day.

• When asked, 54 percent of children ages 4 to 6 say they would rather watch television than spend time with Dad.

• The average time per week that an American child ages 2 to 17 spends watching television is 19 hours, 40 minutes. The number of hours of television watching per week known to negatively affect academic achievement is 10 or more. And these statistics are several years old.

• The percentage of young adults who admit to postponing their bedtime for the Internet or TV is 55.

• By age 18, the average American child sees 200,000 simulated acts of violence on TV, and 16,000 murders.

• On average, a child in the U.S. will spend more time watching television this year (1,023 hours) than in school (900 hours).

Scary research is also available on the long-term health and weight consequences of inactivity because youngsters are staring at a screen instead of going outside to play.

Imagine what improvements could be made in the lives of children — and in family relationships — if a major portion of those 1,023 hours each year could be devoted instead to picnics, books (even if on a screen), trips to the park, exploring, simple conversation or even daydreaming.

The sponsoring organization offers a wealth of great information and ideas, but — alas — you’ll have to digitally access its website, at www.screenfree.org. Such is life in the 21st century.

Gene Deason retired as editor of the Brownwood Bulletin in 2012. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at fridaycolumn@aol.com.