Washington Attention kids: Drop that remote control, put down those fattening snacks munched while watching television, and go outside to play. That's the message in a campaign beginning today that encourages youngsters and their families to turn off their sets and exercise more.
"This is the most overweight, obese generation of children in our history," Surgeon General David Satcher said in an interview. "The message this week is about saving lives."
One parent whose family is taking the no-television pledge said his children, ages 5 and 10, will skip the few hours of public television they usually are allowed.
"It's just such a fixture in our lives," said Tom Cara, an advertising businessman from Niles, Ill., who is leading the campaign in his community. "But we have to set an example for our children."
Studies show U.S. children are watching, on average, 1,000 hours of television each year, or about three hours every day. At the same time, about one in 15 school-age children is overweight.
Those numbers add up to a public health crisis, Satcher said. As adults, today's young couch potatoes will have heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening ailments, he said.
"If children are spending a thousand hours in front of the TV, they're not doing much else," says Jennifer Kurz, spokeswoman for the TV Turnoff Network, which says television is the main culprit for poor exercise habits.
Entire families keep the set on eight hours a day, says the nonprofit group. It hopes 6 million children and adults will turn off their televisions and use time to toss footballs, take walks or ride bikes. Since 1995, the group has organized pledge drives through schools and community centers.
With the added features of multiple channels, video games and DVD movies, television time is sure to rise, Kurz said.
"This is about turning on life," she said.
The campaign coincides with major broadcast industry meetings this week. In recent years, executives from the TV networks and movie studios have been criticized for targeting their products to children, particularly when the shows contain sex and violence.
Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable Television Assn., says the real question is whether parents should take charge of what their children watch. "But denying children TV is no more likely to encourage kids to enjoy reading, for instance, than denying them ice cream would encourage them to like brussels sprouts," he said.