ON TV, when kids fall down, knock heads, or have other mishaps, is it okay to laugh? ``It's bad training for real life,'' says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television.
She's referring specifically to the ABC series ``America's Funniest Home Vidoes,'' where minor kiddy violence is presumably not a performance but really happens (see adjoining article). The weekly program is a huge ratings success but has come under increasing fire - in the media and from viewers - for appearing to wink at children's bumps and pokes in pursuit of comedy. Many feel the continuous sight of such mini-mayhem - accompanied by peals of laughter from the studio audience - is desensitizing viewers at just the time people are finally waking up to the prevalence of child abuse.
``To a degree, this kind of programming trains us to laugh at our children instead of sympathizing with them,'' says Ms. Charren, reached by phone. ``When the things shown on this program happen to your own kids, instead of laughing, you'd better comfort them.
``If you laugh, you will create a hostile situation. We have to stop ourselves in real life from laughing at our children when they do things that look funny to us. There's nothing more disturbing to them in such situations. Yet that's what this kind of program encourages us to do.''
The series does have several good things going for it. It offers one of the few ways a viewer can make a personal connection with a ubiquitous medium that usually seems controlled by anonymous forces. And the home videos, at their best, celebrate the joy of family life.
Charren concedes that ``Some of the pieces are quite benign,'' but goes on to suggest ``The more benign, the less likely you are to laugh.'' The real problem, she points out, is the repetitive nature of the medium itself, the brainwashing continuousness. ``On television nothing successful ever happens once or twice,'' she says, ``but over and over again. It's the same thing that's wrong with Ninja Turtles.''
The popular ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'' are seen today in various pop media incarnations. ``The comic book is all right,'' says Charren. ``But then it became a TV program for kids, and there's a lot of violence. The whole point of the turtles is to fight. You do that once in a 30-minute movie, okay. But the children see the turtles every day. The repeated message is that fighting is terrific. And the repeated message from `Home Videos' is that it's wonderful to laugh when other people hurt themselves or fall down. We stand back like voyeurs and laugh at it....''
The show's producers explain that they carefully check with everyone appearing in the submitted tapes and disqualify those where harm occurs. But in the case of smaller children, the producers must have to rely on the word of adults. A $10,000 prize is offered each week for the funniest incident, and despite the show's best intentions, many people feel there's a danger that a few greedy, unscrupulous home-video makers will smell that $10,000 prize and lard over their kids' injuries so their tape won't be disqualified. (``Oh, yes, little Freddie was just fine after he fell from the top of that jungle jim. You can check with the hospital. It just looked as if his head was hitting the iron bars on the way down. ... By the way, when will we know about the prize-winners?'')
Meanwhile, ``Home Videos'' is already beginning to spawn copies. A similar program was recently announced. ``It appears we're going to continue educating people to laugh at that kind of thing,'' Charren observes. ``When researchers study the effect of violence on television, it's not that all of us then pick up a gun and shoot up the neighborthood. It's that we start to think that violence is an appropriate solution to problems. We're no longer shocked by it. We don't even notice it. We get used to it.''