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Television has become so pervasive that it can either have an extremely constructive effect in informing and educating young people or an extremely harmful effect in coarsening and stupefying them. It depends on what kind of programs children watch and how long they remain glued to the tube.

That's why Congress passed a law in 1990 designed to boost the number of educational programs broadcast to young viewers. Since then the amount of informational programming for children has increased 81 per cent, according to a study recently released by the National Association of Broadcasters. But plenty of critics in and out of Congress dispute the findings.That's why the Federal Communications Commission, for the first time in 10 years, has been holding hearings this week on the state of TV programming for children.

But without a consensus on how much or how little progress has been made so far, the FCC is bound to find it needlessly difficult to decide where to go from here. Witness the problems the FCC is having just trying to formulate one particularly important standard.

The 1990 law mandates that the FCC establish standards to ensure the availability of programming which serves "the educational and informational needs of children." Last year the FCC proposed a more rigorous standard: A show's "primary purpose" must be educational rather than entertainment. But that proposal doesn't set well with the TV industry - and for good reason. It isn't always easy to draw a clear line between what's educational and what's entertaining. Besides, children - particularly the younger ones - often must be amused before they can be instructed. If a program is not engaging, youngsters simply won't watch it. Hence the industry's request for a rule that education be the "significant" rather than the "primary" purpose of children's programming. But something as fuzzy as "significance," like beauty, can be in the mind of the beholder.

With the regulators and the regulated at such loggerheads, what's a parent to do?

For one thing, realize that the main responsibility for regulating what children watch on TV rests not with Washington but with mom and dad. That means sitting down with the kids in front of the tube, noting departures from reality and the family's values and not hesitating to switch channels or hit the "off" button.

Besides being alert to the content of the programs, don't hesitate to ration the amount of time the kids spend in front of the TV set. Plenty of studies have confirmed that the children who watch the most TV tend to get the lowest grades in school. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that excessive TV viewing by children leads to aggressive and violent behavior as well as making youngsters obese from lack of exercise and from eating while watching the screen.

The most important decisions about how much TV helps or hurts children are not the ones being made sporadically in Washington but the decisions made every day in homes all over the country.