SAN FRANCISCO School’s challenge: No TV

Students asked to go cold turkey on television time for 10 days in bid to curb bullying on playground.

In 2001, the event started as a way to address health issues, with the idea that children were spending too much time on the couch watching television and not enough time interacting with family or exercising. Increasingly, however, schools like Visitacion Valley are looking for ways to reduce violence and aggression in the community and on the schoolyard — and they’ve put television and video games on the list. Research has found that children who cut back on screen time are less verbally and physically aggressive on the playground, said Stanford Associate Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Thomas Robinson.

“We have a lot of bullying, both boys and girls,” said San Francisco police Officer Frances Terry, who is the school’s resource officer. “There’s so much violence in the community.” Terry coordinated the effort at the middle school using a curriculum developed by Stanford University researchers called SMART — Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television. A controlled study of the curriculum found it reduced verbal aggression on the playground by 50 percent and physical aggression by 40 percent, said Robinson, who helped create the program.

“Kids are directly learning the behavior by watching or playing video games,” Robinson said. In addition, children become numb to the violence on the screens, desensitizing them to the repercussions of aggressive behavior, he added. Thirdly, it really reinforces that aggression and violence is a way of solving problems, Robinson said.

This is the first year the school has participated in the national event, Terry said. Seventh- grader David Matamua quickly signed the pact during his lunch break, saying it would be easy to keep the promise. And he had a clear idea how he’d spend the unoccupied time: “I’m going to go outside and play,” he said.

Often, children don’t believe that it’s possible turn off the screens for even a day, let alone a week or more, but they quickly realize they can do it, Robinson said.

“It helps kids recognize you can live life without TV,” he said. “The world does not end.”