Michigan kids urged to kick the TV habit

February 28, 2006
Associated Press
By John Flesher

ESCANABA, Mich. -- Principal Mike Smajda was horrified to learn that one of his first-grade pupils at Lemmer Elementary School had watched "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Not long afterward, the boy was playing in a leaf pile with a girl when he suddenly began kicking her in the head. Another boy joined in. "They felt it was part of the game," Smajda said. "They both kicked her until her head was bleeding and she had to go to the hospital."

Smajda can't prove the R-rated slasher movie provoked the child. But the November 2004 incident reinforced his commitment to an anti-violence program getting under way at his school.

It challenged students to do without TV and all other screen entertainment for 10 days, then limit themselves to just seven hours a week. The district's other schools joined in over the next year.

Administrators and teachers say short-term results were striking: less aggressive behavior and, in some cases, better standardized test scores.

Officials in the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District in Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula are so enthusiastic about the program they sponsored a national conference last spring and plan another for April.

Designed by child health specialists at Stanford University, the program was intended for third- and fourth-graders, but Delta-Schoolcraft tailored it for kindergarten through eighth grade.

"I don't know of any other school district that has gone as far with this," said Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and youth violence expert who introduced the program, called Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television.

More than 1,000 studies have established a connection between violent entertainment and youthful aggression, but other factors such as family breakdown and peer influence might share the blame, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said.

The Stanford researchers wanted to determine whether significant cutbacks in television and video would make children less prone to violence. A trial run of their program in San Jose, Calif., had promising results, they said.

"I can't speculate on every individual violent act, but we do know that exposure to violent content does cause more aggressive behavior overall and that reducing screen time does reduce aggression overall," research team leader Dr. Thomas Robinson told The Associated Press by e-mail.

Smajda announced the TV turnoff during an assembly at Lemmer Elementary in Escanaba, a Lake Michigan shoreline town of 13,000 where lounging in front of the tube rivals snowmobiling and ice fishing as means of coping with long, bitter winters.

"Oh my lord, I thought they were going to chase me out of the gym," he said, recalling the boos and hisses. Still, about 90 percent of the 400-plus students took part to some extent. "It was so boring, it was miserable," said 9-year-old Sydney Hardin, who nevertheless stuck with the program - as did sisters Sara, 13, and Emily, 5.

They found other things to do: reading, playing outside with friends, riding bikes. As other schools got involved, the community pitched in. The YMCA offered free temporary memberships; the city library organized card games and knitting classes.

At Rhonda Walker's home, TV screens went dark and video games with even mild violence were outlawed for her sons, ages 6 and 10. Since then, the older boy's reading has improved and the family does more things together.

"We just played 'Clue' for an hour last night because they want to spend time with me," Walker said.

Observers charted aggressive playground incidents - shoving, hitting, obscene gestures, name calling - at eight elementary schools immediately before and after the program. The totals dropped at every school but one. Overall average decline: 52 percent.

The district also compared scores of fourth-graders who took standardized tests during the turnoff in January 2005 with scores of fourth-graders tested before the turnoff. Math and writing scores made double-digit leaps.

"Even more positive results than we'd hoped for," said Kristine Paulsen, the district's general education director.

But will they last? Robinson, the Stanford researcher, is studying his program's long-term effects in California but hasn't reported results.

Smajda plans to continue the program at his school, but says its success will depend more on what happens at home. "We're trying to educate parents to monitor what their kids are watching," he said. "Many of them don't have a clue."