Many parents probably read the above title and are anxiously hoping against hope that we'll finally get to see these two cartoonish creations go head to head in an ultimate fight to the death. An epic battle in which one (or with any luck, both) of these monstrosities would be reduced to rubbish and sent back to the land of make-believe from hence they came. There the Power Rangers could fight each other while Barney tries to intervene singing "I love you, you love me..." in the background, all without making your ears bleed in the process. But alas, no such luck. You're just going to have to put up with the talking dinosaur and the obnoxious teens in pajamas until your kids grow tired of them. This article is actually about a classic experiment which illustrates how a child's behavior can be impacted by what they watch and observe.
It's called the Barney versus Power Rangers experiment because researchers arranged for a classroom of preschoolers to watch two different cartoon clips; one day an episode of the popular children's television show Barney and Friends, another an episode of the always entertaining Power Rangers show. They then watched and observed the children's behavior before, during, and after these episodes of fine children's entertainment. The results were revealing, and perhaps a little worrisome. After watching Barney, the children were bouncing up and down, holding hands, singing, dancing, and playing amongst each other, just as they had seen on TV. (I know, scary isn’t it?)
After the Power Rangers episode, the same sort of thing happened. Only instead of dancing and playing games, they once again mimicked what they were exposed to. This time around that meant play-fighting with each other, kicking and punching one another, and fashioning swords out of blocks or creating other impromptu weapons from classroom supplies. For those who try to pretend that television has no effect on children, this experiment is about as blatant a rebuke to such ideas as one can come by. (1)
A child's brain is built for mimicry. From the earliest days right after their birth, they begin to studiously observe others. As they watch others do something, an entire system of neurons in their brain (known as mirror neurons) "light up" in response, essentially practicing in the brain what they see and observe with their eyes and ears. Research using fMRI brain imaging technology has shown that watching television can play a person's brain like a puppeteer. (2) As a person watches what is going on, the different areas of their brain associated with those moods or actions light up in response as if they were actually living the experience; so much so that there's little discernible difference between what our brains do when we watch versus what we actually experience. And since a child's primary mode of learning is mimicking what they observe, this makes television a social education device that broadcasts signals directly into your child's brain.
To young children, television is little more than a mimicry machine; a screen bringing a variety of messages and behavior for them to emulate. So just as parents should avoid arguing in front of their children (for much the same reasons...your argument actually plays out inside your child's brain and provides a model for them to emulate} parents need to be conscientious of what is being modeled for their child on television.
Sometimes the emphasis on television violence can be taken too far, however, and we don't intend to hype up the fears beyond practicality. It's not as though your 5-year-old is destined to be a serial killer should they watch one too many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes. Nor is it necessary to keep them from their favorite television program just because it has fight scenes. That would just be mean, and television is but one of many social influences and proper parenting in other regards can overcome a half-hour of cartoon violence. Parents should, however, pay attention to the bulk of what their child is watching, because what they watch does influence them.
In terms of priming children for calm, prosocial behavior, I'm afraid the big purple dinosaur wins out. Even if he does make your ears bleed.
1. Eric Jensen, “No - Why kids of all ages need to hear it and ways parents can say it,” New York: Free Press, 2007, pp. 257-260
2. Uri Hasson et al., "Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision." Science 303, no. 5664, pp. 1634-40, 2004