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Commentary : A 'MIGHTY' QUANDARY ABOUT VIOLENCE AND CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS

October 30, 1994|DAVID ZURAWIK | THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is it a reactionary move to self-censorship or an enlightened decision by Scandinavian broadcasters from which their American counterparts could learn? Is there a message in it for American parents who worry about the effects television shows, such as "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Mutant Ninja Turtles," might be having on their children?

Those were key questions that educators, researchers, child-care specialists and parents were asking in reaction to news that "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers"--the highest-rated kids' TV show in America--had been pulled from the airwaves in Norway.

The show was taken off the air--and later scheduled to be reinstated this year on Scandinavian broadcaster TV3--because Norwegians believe it might be linked to the shocking death recently of a 5-year-old girl, Silje Marie Redergaard. The girl's body was found beaten and partly undressed. She had been kicked, punched and hit with a rock, then left to freeze to death in the snow.

Who would do such a horrible thing? Three of her male playmates, police say. Two of the boys are 6; one is 5.

At press time, the only reported link between the killing and children's television comes from an early version of the incident one of the boys gave police. He initially said teen-age boys attacked and killed the girl, and that he chased them away when he "kicked one of them until he bled--just like the Mutant Ninja Turtles do."

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is an animated show that features likable heroes kung-fu kicking and karate-chopping evil opponents. "Power Rangers" is a live-action show featuring kung-fu teen-age heroes. Both shows are targeted at 4- to 12-year-olds.

While pulling "Power Rangers" based on the reported link in Norway might seem premature to some, several experts say there is more than enough evidence in 40 years of research on kids and television to support this ounce of prevention.

Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches a course in "Children and Television" at the University of Maryland, College Park, believes there is an indisputable link between children watching violence on television and aggressive behavior, especially in younger children.

"From the information available at this time, no direct or indirect linkage between this event and any children's telecast in Scandinavia has been established," says Barry Stagg, vice president of Saban Entertainment, the producer of the "Power Rangers." "Although our show has no direct linkage in this grievous occurrence, we remain deeply saddened by this tragedy."

Fox Broadcasting, the network that carries the series in America, declined comment. Earlier this year, however, Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children's Network, was asked about violence in the show and whether she feared kids might imitate it.

"We're not worried about 'Power Rangers' because frankly we have gotten very little criticism. We've gotten almost no letters of complaints from parents, for example, because it's such a silly show," she says.

Asked if watching "Power Rangers" could contribute to 6-year-olds attacking a playmate, Parks said yes, "especially if they see the aggressive behavior as valued the way it is in these shows. And research shows that it's more likely to be boys acting aggressively."

Dr. Jerome Singer, of the Yale University Family Television Research Center, agrees.

"There is a risk to kids from shows like these," said Singer, a psychologist. "The research data consistently points to the fact that children who watch violent or aggressive material--material that's relatively realistic and imitable--on television or video are more likely to be aggressive afterward."

After reviewing 3,000 studies on the effects of TV violence, the American Psychological Assn. in 1992 issued a report titled "Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society." Among other things, the report said: "The accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior. ... Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programs also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to resolve conflicts."

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