Touting surveys that claim to show the harmful physical and psychological effects of too much computer use, a newly formed parents’ group is promoting a worldwide media awareness week that asks parents to turn off their children’s (and their own) computers for a week in favor of other activities. PC Turnoff Week, organized by the group PC-Turnoff.org, is scheduled for August 1-7 of this year.

PC-Turnoff says it “was founded by parents who became concerned with their children’s overuse of computers.” The group means to provide users with news and opinions regarding the latest research in the area of children and computers. Leaders of the campaign own a company that sells software designed to let parents turn off computers, a fact disclosed on the organization’s web site.

PC-Turnoff says that, in an age of complete media saturation, American children now spend less time reading, playing outdoors, and socializing with family and friends. Though the group believes “computers are wonderful tools for learning, assisting with research, and communication,” it says today’s youth “often waste time aimlessly surfing the web, playing games, or chatting online.”

The founding member of PC-Turnoff, Joe Acunzo, said the group was formed in April. “There is a small handful at the core of the movement at the moment,” Acunzo said. “We’re hoping the group will grow … We have every intention of making [PC Turnoff Week] an annual event. It will be a mechanism for getting the word out, getting [parents] to take a look.”

Acunzo said PC-Turnoff has modeled itself on the successful TV-Turnoff group that began a similar campaign in 1994, urging families to spend time away from what many have called “the electronic hearth.” That group has since broadened its focus to include the so-called new media of computers and video games.

Don Knezek, director of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), warned against taking a “televisionist” view of current technology and the role it plays in the lives of young people.

“You need to examine the & assumption of the computer as the old box that sits still,” Knezek said. “In fact, young students today are using technology in a number of mobile ways.”

Acunzo said PC-Turnoff’s efforts are based on recent studies of technology use among kids at home.

“What we’ve discovered from the research & is that there are issues of social isolation, children are not interacting one-on-one with their peers. Yes, they are interacting virtually, but it doesn’t compare,” Acunzo said. “[Also,] I’m sure that you’ve seen and read the childhood obesity rate is at an all-time high. And learning issues–children have difficulty focusing on things.”

Acunzo and the group’s web site point to, among other sources, a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation called “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds” (see “Today’s kids are media multi-taskers“), which studied media use among young people. Though the study makes few value judgments about students’ computer use and instead records their habits, Acunzo notes that “one of the conclusions [it draws] is that anything that’s taking up so much time in our children’s lives [has the] potential for negative effects.”

PC-Turnoff recommends a number of alternate activities for families, such as “reading, exercise, play, or family time,” and links to organizations that feature more elaborate family activity planning.

But Acunzo is equally quick to stress that his group is “by no means anti-computer or anti-technology.”

“We recognize that technologies have the potential for negative effects,” he said. “[But] we firmly believe technology is a great tool for children, both socially and academically. We are concerned with what happens with excessive use. That prompted us to start this.”

“I’m pleased [PC-Turnoff’s] agenda is not abstinence through grade eight, as some groups propose,” Knezek said, alluding to the Alliance for Childhood, which PC-Turnoff also uses as a source to support its idea of a PC-free week. Knezek added that it’s good PC-Turnoff appears to be “interested in limiting any potentially damaging conditions. Those are very good concerns in the whole technology agenda.”

But Knezek warned that careful, sophisticated consideration must be given to the studies used by groups like PC-Turnoff as support for their claims.

“The first thing that we need to do is examine the assumption that excessive use of technology is the issue that’s causing our students to be, [for instance,] overweight,” Knezek said. “If the accusation is that increased technology use makes [students] illiterate, you need to look at some of the recent studies that show the opposite.”

One PC Turnoff Week sponsor that is featured heavily on the PC-Turnoff web site is a for-profit company called SoftwareTime, which produces a software program that allows parents to limit the amount of time their kids spend online. That company is owned by Acunzo and his business partner, Marc Sicignano.

“SoftwareTime started as a commercial venture, and now we have this other movement,” Acunzo said. “SoftwareTime is going to evolve as a company; we’re going to go on to other things. We want to make [the relationship] very clear–we fully disclose it on the PC-Turnoff web site. We don’t want to lose credibility of the company. We offer a lot of good information on the [PC-Turnoff] site. We’re going to just offer the information at no charge. We also recommend other products and books.”

Links:

PC-Turnoff.org
http://www.pcturnoff.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Kaiser Family Foundation
http://www.kaiserfamily.org

Alliance for Childhood
http://www.allianceforchildhood.org