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A Bad Influence?

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For those few adults not in the know, Tardy is referring to the Fox television network's afternoon show about a group of everyday teenagers who metamorphose--or "morph,'' in the show's lingo--into color-coded martial-arts superheroes who battle evil alien villains. Now in its second season, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers shows no signs of losing popularity anytime soon.

But many parents, teachers, and media experts keep hoping. Like a number of other children's TV shows, Power Rangers, they say, places too much emphasis on violence. But unlike such "superhero'' cartoon shows as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men, Power Rangers has a special twist: It's a "live action'' show featuring real actors. As a result, children seem to identify even more strongly with the youngsters who portray the Power Rangers.

"You can't always turn into a Ninja Turtle,'' Tardy says. "But you can just be wearing red clothes and turn into a Power Ranger.'' The teacher's concerns have prompted her to ban toys based on the show from her classroom. She has even organized workshops to persuade parents to discourage their children from watching the popular program.

Tardy isn't alone in her concerns. According to Massachusetts researchers Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, many teachers are worried about the show's impact on their students. And rightfully so, they say. The two researchers have concluded that children who watch Power Rangers become more violent, often mimicking the martial-arts moves featured on each day's episode.

Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, and Carlsson-Paige, an education professor at Lesley College in nearby Cambridge, surveyed 56 teachers who work with young children. Some 88 percent reported that they are concerned about the effects the show is having on their students. And 96 percent said that violence has increased among the children.

Their findings have struck a nerve with a wide range of educators across the country who also see a connection between the show and a rise in violent behavior in their classrooms. "It is all centered around fighting and violence,'' says Tardy, who took part in the study. "I think the public needs to stand up and say that this is unacceptable for children's programming.''

Another teacher who participated in the study told the researchers, "The Power Rangers show goes against everything that teachers work for.''

But while many educators and media experts line up against Power Rangers and similar "superhero'' shows, others defend them. Writing in TV Guide in March, New York parent James Kaplan argued that "almost all action shows are witless'' and that "most kids tend to kick, jump, and go 'hi-yaah' whether they watch TV or not.''

"Action shows,'' Kaplan continued, "may lack the storytelling worth of fairy tales, yet they do something similar. They help kids feel less alone about their own fears and aggressions.''

Other observers argue that superhero shows can stimulate young viewers' imaginations and give them a cathartic outlet for play. "I think children need superheroes,'' says Marilyn Droz, an educator and vice president of the National Coalition on Television Violence, a Michigan-based group that advocates against TV violence. "They need mythical role models to look up to.''

Droz finds some redeeming qualities in Power Rangers, although she acknowledges that many children are attracted simply by the martial-arts scenes. The Power Rangers "are young, they're cute, they're multiracial, and they respect their elders,'' she says. "At the end of the show, they always give you a moral. Unfortunately, children only see the kick boxing.''

Levin and Carlsson-Paige have been collaborating for more than a decade on research about children's television and its impact on play activities. Together, they have published numerous articles and several books on the subject, including The War Play Dilemma and Who's Calling the Shots?: How To Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination With War Play and War Toys. "My field is teacher education, and teachers kept bringing up concerns about changes in children's play,'' Carlsson-Paige says. "Finally, I heard it so much that I suggested to Diane that we take a look at this.''

Four years ago, the researchers conducted a study on teachers' attitudes about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was then the hot Saturday morning cartoon show. They distributed questionnaires to early childhood educators, asking them to describe ways children brought the Ninja Turtles into the classroom, whether the children displayed any effects from watching the show, and their own reactions to the program.

An overwhelming 95 percent of the teachers expressed a concern about the program. Some thought it led to more aggressive behavior and had a negative effect on children's play. Others worried that boys tended to exclude girls from Ninja Turtle-related play at recess. Still others believed the show led children to confuse fantasy with reality. Many teachers said the Turtles were "contributing to the acceptance, and even glorification, of fighting among many children,'' Levin and Carlsson-Paige wrote in the Winter 1991 issue of the journal Day Care and Early Education.

The researchers' shift from sewer-surfing mutant turtles to superhuman teenage heroes reflects the fast-changing world of children's TV programming. Power Rangers made its debut on U.S. television on the Fox network in the fall of 1993. The plots of each episode are similar: Henchmen of alien leaders attack a group of wholesome teenagers, who must eventually use their enhanced gymnastic and martial-arts powers to save the day. The show soon rocketed to the number one spot in the ratings among children ages 2 to 11. It now enjoys an estimated daily audience of about five million U.S. viewers.

Distributed by Saban Entertainment Inc. of Burbank, Calif., Power Rangers has raised hackles in other countries, as well. Last fall, YTV, a children's cable channel in Canada and New Zealand, pulled the show from its lineup, while another Canadian network requested a less violent version. And a television channel serving Scandinavian countries took the show off the air briefly last November after a Norwegian girl was kicked to death by playmates. Officials later concluded that the program wasn't to blame.

Power Ranger mania isn't limited to television. Toy retailers couldn't keep the action figures on their shelves last Christmas, and several videos of the TV show rank among the nation's bestsellers. And now there's even a feature-length movie. This past January, Newt Gingrich, then the incoming Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, welcomed a promotional troupe of Power Rangers to festivities celebrating the opening of the 104th Congress.

To Levin, the way Gingrich embraced the Power Rangers "was symbolic of the gulf that divides those people who understand children and those who don't.''

She and Carlsson-Paige found that teachers' responses on the Power Rangers study were similar to those they got on their Ninja Turtle survey: Most expressed concerns about a rising level of violence among their students, a lack of creativity in their play, and an obsessive quality to some children's involvement. (Fox declined to comment on the Power Rangers finding.)

According to Levin and Carlsson-Paige, children have difficulty interpreting shows like Power Rangers into their own play activities, so they simply mimic it. "As they imitate more and play less, they become more susceptible to imitating the violence they have seen in their play and their interactions with others,'' they write. "A central task of the early years is to learn to sort out fantasy and reality and that actions have consequences. When children's ability to learn about what is real and what is fantasy is undermined, their healthy development can be threatened.''

The researchers are now reviewing a larger database of teacher survey responses about the show. And the results seem clearer than ever.

"There are no teachers advocating more Power Rangers,'' Levin says. "I can think of only three positive comments out of more than 200 questionnaires, such as that the show teaches children their colors. But then they fight over the colors, anyway.''

--Mark Walsh

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