Television literacy is an important skill for today's young people to acquire, according to Patricia Marks Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA and author of "Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games, and Computers" (Harvard University Press, 79 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138: $6.45 postpaid). Greenfield believes that children can derive positive benefits from television, as long as their parents are involved.
Greenfield's research began from the premise that, although a lot of television programming isn't very good, it's necessary to begin with what we have and work toward achieving better programming.
"Especially in Los Angeles, where a lot of people have cable," she says, "there is much more available than many people are aware of. Also, given that children are going to be watching schlock, we can make the most of it by using it for social analysis."
Television can play a positive role in children's lives, particularly if parents make them aware of the drawbacks: sexist stereotyping, ageism, racism, violence, materialistic outlook and encouragement of impulsiveness.
"Watching a lot of violence on TV has been claimed to cause desensitization to violence, so that too many children have the attitude that 'violence is no big deal,' " Greenfield says.
In comparing television to print, Greenfield says:
"Print conveys information one piece at a time, whereas television presents many pieces of information at once."
Television literacy involves the ability to process information simultaneously, as well as learning to decode TV's visual and auditory symbols. Techniques such as cutting from one shot to another, panning the camera from one side of a scene to another, zooming in and splitting the screen are visual symbols.
Faceless narrators and canned laughter are examples of auditory symbols. Without words, we know what a close-up signifies, and we recognize that a dissolve indicates a change of scene and time. Youngsters understand these things almost instinctively, if they've grown up watching television. Greenfield estimates that an hour a day of television can result in television literacy.
She believes that television could be better used for education than for entertainment, as most of it is now. Some studies have shown that children learn best from a multimedia presentation. "Each medium has its role," she says.
Yet she is aware of the less-than-perfect state of much of current TV programming. "It's better to be getting television literacy from worthwhile programming, and this can be accomplished by parents becoming more familiar with what's on and by giving guidance--not just 'don't watch that,' but by offering specific alternative programs. Carefully read a guide to the week's programs and plan ahead. A VCR is very helpful in planning and controlling what your children watch."
Greenfield recommends trying to choose as much of your children's television programming as possible from the quality shows available on cable, public television and the specials aimed at young people on regular TV. In addition, she suggests purchasing videotapes if possible.
"It's better to buy than to rent," she says, "because by watching a good program repeatedly, the child is reached at a deeper level; the experience becomes more like reading a book, where you can stop and savor it, enjoy favorite parts over and over, and so on."
Parents can help their children be more discriminating viewers, no matter what they're watching. To improve young people's critical viewing skills, she offers these suggestions:
--Watch TV with them as often as possible and discuss everything. Talk about how women, young people, the handicapped, the elderly and minorities are stereotyped.
--Notice the way TV families differ from your own.
--Discuss the frequent unreality and irresponsibility of TV--that characters rarely wear seat belts, that they drink alcohol without getting drunk and that they almost never talk about birth control.
--Talk about how characters handle conflict: Do characters interact by helping, sharing and supporting each other, or do they belittle one another?
--If possible, have your child read the book on which a program is based. Discuss and compare the two media.
--Talk about the frequent use of violence. Is it real or meant to be funny? Who does it--the good guys or the bad guys?
--Watch the news together and talk about the importance of the individual editor's judgment on what appears on a particular broadcast. Compare the depth of coverage on TV with that in a newspaper and news magazine.
Also, Greenfield advises parents to teach their children how to decode commercial messages.
"Children below 7 are particularly vulnerable. They don't always discriminate between the program and the commercial." Help them catch fallacious reasoning, the overuse of superlatives, the irrelevant claims and statements. Talk about whether the values shown are ones your family wants to emulate.
Parents may also want to contact a local school's PTA for information on how they can participate in a workshop on the subject of TV-viewing skills.