TV off: Hatfield girl spends a year without television and movies

Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2014

Liza Katz of Hatfield and her 10-year-old daughter, Siga Pouye, don’t watch a lot of television together.

But when Siga took on a challenge to go without television or movies for an entire year — save for a few exceptions, such as documentaries for school and with family on holidays — it carried a feeling of sacrifice.

She began the challenge on April 1, 2013, and successfully finished on the same day this year.

“Winter was the worst,” Siga said during an interview at their home in Hatfield. Though it was fun to play outside, she could not come in and drink hot chocolate in front of the television, she said.

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But self-determination runs in her family. Katz, now 35, completed the same challenge 25 years earlier. As a 10-year-old growing up in Natick, she won a $500 “bet” with her father, Roger, that she could go one year without television, and her endeavor caught the attention of the Boston Globe. She said her daughter became interested in taking on the same challenge after years of passing by the framed article at her grandfather’s house.

Coincidentally, Katz noted, her daughter did the challenge around the same time of year that she did. Katz’s lasted from March 14, 1988 to the same day in 1989.

“It was just neat,” said Katz recently, sitting next to her daughter at their kitchen table. “I don’t even think I realized until she really finished — 25 years ago I did the same thing. It’s a cool idea.”

Focus on screen time

As children gain more access to technology and media, the benefits and drawbacks are increasingly getting attention.

Children 8 and under spend an average of nearly two hours in front of a screen each day, according to a 2013 study by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which studies the impact of technology and media on children. Of this time, nearly half, or 57 minutes, is spent watching television programs, with the rest being spent watching DVDs, using computers, playing video games and using mobile devices. Of the time spent watching television programs, almost a third is spent watching programming that was recorded or downloaded earlier, or is being streamed or accessed on demand.

The study also notes that between 2011 and 2013, the number of children who have used mobile devices have doubled, from 8 percent to 17 percent.

This year, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is sponsoring the annual Screen Free Week from May 5 to 11, in which people abstain from television, video games, mobile devices and other screens they use for entertainment. The annual event was called “TV-Turnoff Week” until 2010, when the organization changed the name to reflect the growing number of devices children use for entertainment.

The National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by the Jewish nonprofit Reboot, held March 7 to 8, asked participants to abstain from computers, television and mobile devices for 24 hours.

Updating the rules

Katz, who works as an operations manager at the Mind and Life Institute in Hadley, noted the financial reward of $500 for completing the challenge hasn’t changed since she took it on as a child, but the challenge itself has.

In addition to swearing off television, movies or movie theaters, there were also no YouTube videos — except for music videos that contained lyrics only. Siga could cash in six 10-minute coupons per week for computer and video games.

“I had to be a little more creative about the rules for the bet because it wasn’t as simple as, ‘Don’t turn on the TV or VCR,’” Katz said. She said she consulted with her parents about how to best shape the challenge. “It’s not fair to cut off all technology. It’s just a part of kids lives,” she said.

Unlike in a traditional bet, here was no penalty for not succeeding. There was also no reward for going partway, such as $250 for half of a year, said Katz.

“There’s no pressure and there’s no shame,” she said. “It was really supposed to be a positive thing. At any point if you didn’t follow through, it was like, ‘Good job for taking the challenge.’”

But Katz found that there comes a point in the challenge where turning back no longer feels like an option. “I don’t think you realize how long a year is until you’re in it, and then you get far enough along and you don’t want to turn back,” she recalled.

As Siga spoke about the past year, she frequently leaped up from the kitchen table to retrieve crafts she constructed during her time away from the screen. She returns from her room with several creations, including bags and wallets made of patterned duct tape, and bracelets made of colorful rubber bands woven together, another popular craft.

She said one of her friends even copied the design of one of her favorite bracelets — but she doesn’t mind. “I think of copying as the sincerest form of flattery,” she said.

Katz, who likes to paint, said television wasn’t a huge part of life before the challenge anyway: she and Siga more often craft, cook, and make art together than they do watch television. But this wasn’t the case when she was growing up. Her family would watch “Wheel of Fortune” every night after dinner, she said.

“They didn’t make it easy on me,” she said. “For Siga, I don’t watch TV till late at night anyway.”

The challenge was hardest for her daughter on snow days and days she was home sick from school, “where you kind of cherish that opportunity to just lay on the couch and watch a movie.”

The challange offered a lesson in delaying gratification, Katz said. “That a 10-year-old can be empowered to sacrifice is also really a cool story, and it can probably be done with anything,” she said.

“I remember feeling very, very proud,” Katz said of her own successful challenge.

Both the mother and daughter also used their time away from the screen to read books. Siga said her favorite book became “The Graveyard Book,” a children’s fantasy novel by British author Neil Gaiman about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his family is murdered. “It’s not that scary,” she added.

One of her friends tried to take on the same challenge, she said, but stopped to watch a movie at another friend’s house. When another peer heard about the challenge, she said, he responded, “Oh, that’s so easy.” But hearing she was limited to an hour of computer and video games per week, he changed his mind.

Katz noted that when her daughter spent time with friends, they would also have to find other activities. “Her friends kind of participated in the bet when they hung out,” she said. “That was kind of neat for her friendships.”

Since the challenge ended, Siga has returned to watching some shows, but there are others she doesn’t enjoy as much as she used to. The first movie she watched since returning to the screen was the 2013 DreamWorks Animation film “Turbo.”

“It was weird when I asked if I could watch a movie,” Siga said. “And I felt weird just looking at the screen, because I hadn’t been able to look at a screen for so long unless it was blank.”

But screen time will stay in her life for now. With her prize money, she said she wants buy an iPod Touch and headphones.


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