Call to Turn off PCs Is Misguided

Opinion: The equating of computers with TVs is not only old-fashioned, it's also dangerous.

"Turn that thing off!" If your parents said it once, they said it a thousand times: Turn off the television and pay attention to something else. Now, in a new tech twist on a familiar idea, a couple of software sales guys are urging people to "turn off the PC."

Hoping to cash in on parents fears about their childrens computer use, Joe Acunzo and Mark Sicignano have started an organization called PC Turnoff, or PC-TOO, and are calling for a week of "freedom" from the personal computer.

This has all the trappings of the hysteria that grips Congress periodically over the— pick your favorite human behavior—sex, violence or drug use depicted on television or in video games. This old-fashioned equating of computers with TV sets—they both have screens you can watch—has the benefit of familiarity on its side. That makes it a little dangerous. After all, politicians love nothing better than an easily understood metaphor. But the timing—a year when many in the science and tech fields are worried about the lack of interest students are showing in engineering and the sciences, generally—is particularly poor.

In a press release as breathless as anything the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry—the go-to organization for politicians hoping to clean up TV—could dream up, the PC Turnoff Organization is warning parents about too much computer time.

PC-TOO issued the following statement on its Web site: "A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study discovered that children spend close to 6 1/2 hours per day using "media," such as TV, computers, and video games! There are social, physical, and psychological problems stemming from excessive use of this media, and it is our goal to make parents aware of these issues."

Their timing is the first clue to their insincerity. What week does PC Turnoff want parents to do without the computer? The first week in August, which isnt normally a week when kids are locked in the house because of bad weather or homework. Theres another hint: The founders of PC Turnoff mimic the psychiatrists rhetoric, but the study they cite, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds," doesnt warn of any specific "physical or psychological problems." In fact, it very deliberately avoids such conclusions.

For anyone in the business, the idea of turning off a computer—which can play music, deliver mail, weather, news and other information—makes about as much sense as turning off the electricity and the telephone. So its particularly galling to realize that the PC Turnoff folks are really trying to sell a $40 software program that will limit the times and hours a children can use a computer.

Acunzo, PC Turnoff co-founder and CEO of Software Time, the company that makes—and markets—the blocking software, says this isnt about selling software and that hes donated $60,000 worth of software to the cause. "We are trying to get tools into parents hands, he said of the product he developed to curb what he described as his daughters "IM addiction."

/zimages/6/28571.gifeWEEK Editor Scot Petersen says we can make the Internet child-safe without trampling civil liberties. Click here to read his column.

Hes certainly got a market for his product if not the cautionary message that accompanies it. The Kaiser study PC Turnoff cites shows that while most families dont have rules or restrictions on how or when children can watch TV, many—about 25 percent—have rules on how long children can spend on their computers or limits on what they can do or read on the Internet.

The Kaiser study is flawed in another important respect. It sets a computers use apart from other activities such as reading, playing video games or listening to music. Theyre segregated with the studys authors assuming that the use of a piece of equipment denoted a certain kind of activity. For instance, the study found that kids spend under an hour each day online—just about the same amount of time they say they spend "reading books/magazine/newspapers." That sort of segregation works with TV and books but not with computers. Much of what you can do on a PC—send a message, play a game, listen to music, take a picture, make a phone call—you can now do on a small handheld device, a cell phone or an iPod. You dont need a PC. Nor does the kid sitting next to you.

But here comes the kicker: Almost all of the young people surveyed by Kaiser said they use media simultaneously. In other words, they rarely did just one thing at a time. So the idea that somehow theyre all wasting time sitting in front of a computer—a big centralized PC—that isolates them from their peers (who are probably doing the same thing) is as quaint as your parents shouts to "turn that thing off." technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

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