The simplicity of the experiment at the Minneapolis day-care center and the starkness of the results stunned the parents.
When a class of two- to five-year-olds watched public television's big-hearted purple dinosaur, "Barney," they sang along, marched along, held one another's hands, and laughed together.
The next day, the same class watched the aggressive teenage avengers, "Power Rangers." Within minutes, they were karate-chopping and high-kicking the air - and one another.
"Even though the goal of these programs isn't to teach, our kids are learning because they're always learning," says David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family, who conducted the experiment with a local television station last fall.
Concern about the effect of TV violence on children has grown almost every year since the flickering screens entered America's homes. While Congress has pounded its fists and parents have complained, the overall level of violence remains the same, according to the National Television Violence Study released yesterday in Washington.
The three-year study underwritten by the cable industry also found that prime-time violence, on both broadcast and cable networks, has increased since 1994. And the much-ballyhooed rating system implemented by the networks initially failed to identify violent programs. It also concluded that the way violence is portrayed in most instances - glamorized, sanitized, and without negative consequences - poses a serious risk to children.
"These patterns teach children that violence is desirable, necessary, and painless," says Dale Kunkel of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the study was done.
The networks, weary of the annual attacks, strongly defend the strides they've made in adding the rating system and high-quality children's shows. "[This study] frustrates me, because I don't think it paints a very accurate or useful picture," says Martin Franks, a senior vice president of CBS.
Mr. Franks says a similar study underwritten by the broadcast networks found an overall decrease in the level of televised violence. He also attacks the methodology of the cable study as "horribly flawed," contending that it primarily counts incidences of violence without noting timing or context. "It doesn't distinguish between 'Schindler's List' and 'Die Hard,' " he says.
But the study's authors disagree. They say their counters clearly distinguish between harmful and educational violence. They found that less than 5 percent of all programs had an antiviolent theme.
"These point out the problems with violence, show alternatives to it, and make people aware of the negative consequences," says Barbara Wilson, another of the study's authors.
Professor Wilson applauds the efforts of some individuals in Hollywood to create positive programs. But she says many others have to follow suit if their efforts are to register a change in the annual study.
The authors also praise the networks for adding content information to their age-based rating system after parents complained. But NBC is criticized for refusing to join the others.
Some media experts, like George Gerbner of Temple University in Philadelphia, are tougher on the new ratings. "It's like instead of cleaning up the polluted air, they said, 'We'll give you a gas mask,' " says Professor Gerbner.
But other media analysts are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the new system.
"It's a start, but there's a long way to go," says Ranny Levy of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media. The coalition already rates children's videos and CD Roms to give parents an independent guide to quality programming. The National Institute on Media and the Family has also decided to add an independent voice to the debate.
"We're having parents rate the programs," says Dr. Walsh. "Within a week or so, we'll report on whether our parents agree with the networks."
For now, the study's authors say, parents should become aware of the types of violence that pose risks to children and monitor what their kids watch. "In the long term, if the creative community is going to use violence, it should consider showing the consequences, some remorse, and criticism of violence," says Wilson.
Ratings resources for parents
These groups provide independent ratings of television programs.
National Institute on Media and the Family
Riverside Professional Building
606 24th Avenue South, Suite 606
Minneapolis, MN 55454
112 W. San Francisco St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501