Robert Pittman, one of the creators of MTV, thinks teens today are an audience best spoken to in pictures. "TV babies seem to perceive visual messages better" than previous generations did, Pittman wrote in a recent New York Times editorial. "They can 'reed' a picture or understand body language at a glance."
But is visual literacy synonymous with visual smarts? Johns Hopkins University media professor Marc Miller doesn't think so. "It's just not the case that teenagers are growing up more visually sophisticated by virtue of being immersed in video images," he says. The medium just isn't that demanding. "It doesn't take a genius to [watch campaign ads and] start associating the Democrats with Willie Horton."
Even with the simplest of images, seeing is not discerning. "I show kids [ads] in class, and they can't comment on them," says Ron Lembo, professor of humanities at the University of California, Berkeley. "They're completely drawn in. " And no wonder: with ads (like those for Side 1) verging on mini-dramas and mainstream TV emulating MTV, viewing has become more visceral than ever. "The appeal is on a directly emotional level," Lembo says, "and the potential for being dominated by the imagery is frightening."
Will it ever be otherwise? No one expects that teens will watch less TV. And by its very nature, TV viewing unlike reading, will always be a basically passive exercise--analytic skills not required. What might help, says Miller, "is a program to help interpret what teens look at." Teachers and parents (if they're not couch potatoes themselves) should teach kids to read between the pictures, as they are taught to read between the lines.