By the time the average American child graduates from high school he will have spent 22,000 hours in front of the television set. But what is he watching? How much is geared to his age and needs during those impressionable years? And what is the quality of those programs?
Many parents, teachers, and child advocates are troubled by the answers. No regularly scheduled network television programs for children are shown from Monday through Friday. Saturday morning cartoons, a children's TV ghetto, are sometimes violent and usually mindless. In many communities there are no real people, only cartoon characters, on the Saturday shows telecast for children on major channels. And early evening TV shows, which many youngsters watch, are frequently sprinkled with violence, immorality, and inanity.
What's needed are standards, both in quantity and quality, in programming for children. The decision by the Federal Communications Commission last week was disappointing: The FCC decided against requiring TV broadcasters to meet targets for increased programming for children. It is a decision that Action for Children's Television promised to appeal.
Puzzlingly, FCC chairman Mark Fowler, giving the majority position, said that when each TV station's license comes up for renewal ''the broadcaster still must demonstrate . . . that he has met the needs of children.'' How is that to be judged when there are no agreed-upon standards, no guidelines?
Television has an extraordinary potential for influencing the young. (And their elders, for that matter.) Despite ''Sesame Street,'' ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' and various specials from time to time, it is a potential generally not used constructively.
Putting the responsibility on parents to screen all their children's viewing, as the FCC does, is not practicable. Many parents do; ideally, all should. But some cannot: Older children often must be home alone when parents are working. Also, some parents simply will not monitor their youngsters' viewing.
Children do not want and should not have a televised menu purely of ''educational'' programs. But there should be regularly scheduled programs for children which contain artistic vigor, and some with intellectual vigor.
The FCC has now given broadcasters the freedom to do more or less what they want about programming for children. But the corollary of freedom is responsibility. It now is the broadcasters' responsibility to improve significantly the quantity and quality of their TV shows for youngsters.