Seal of Approval

by Richard C. McCord

"Parents will buy kids any video they ask for--'Rambo,' 'Terminator II,' 'Lethal Weapon'--especially when the kid is sick," says Ranny Levy, who heads the Santa Fe-based Coalition for Quality Children's Media. "They think it's love. But they don't realize that such movies cause agitation, not healing."

And so Levy, at the request of Children's Hospital at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, recently revised that institution's video library, which was heavy with violence-ridden fare left by young patients who died or went home. In place of the knifings, shootings, beatings and explosions, "we put in positive titles that comforted, supported and loved."

For Levy's young nonprofit corporation, it was all part of the job. Alarmed by the nation's ever-rising rate of violence and anti-social behavior among young people, Levy and a friend founded the Coalition in 1991 to try to do something about it. Motivating them were these disturbing facts:

* In the kindergarten-through-high-school years, typical American children spend more time watching television screens (15,000 hours) than they do in classrooms (11,000 hours).

* By the end of elementary school, the average child has seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on TV.

* The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have officially declared violence an "epidemic" in America.

"That kind of behavior doesn't just come out of nowhere," Levy says. "Most behavior is learned by replicating behavior seen elsewhere. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that most of the violence being picked up by kids comes from the attitudes perpetuated on television, feature films and videos."

So the Coalition was formed, "to serve as a filter, to sort out the good from the bad." And according to Levy, it concentrates not on what's bad, but what's good. "We don't publish a 'bad list.' We don't issue a '10 Worst Kid Video' warning just before Christmas. There are two reasons: Others are doing that, and we wanted the support of the industry."

Instead, the Coalition publishes a "good list," called the "Kids First! Directory," in which more than a thousand children's videos and CD-ROMs have been given a formal stamp of approval, to guide parents who wish to clean up the small screen--at least in their own homes and for their own kids.

To earn the Coalition's endorsement, which is steadily gaining nationwide clout as a purchasing guide for parents, entertainment companies voluntarily submit their products and pay a $150 fee for a review by a panel of "jurors." Some 300 adults, all with professional credentials in children's work, are on the Coalition's jury, as are about 3,000 youngsters. Every title is screened by five adults and numerous children.

In their assessments, jurors are watchful not only for violence but also racism, sexism, adult-bashing (as in the hit movie "Home Alone'), sexual innuendo (as in seductive, bikini-clad toddlers) and anti-social behavior in general. "We go by the integrity of the work, not the hype behind it," Levy says. "Sometimes people think we're some weird right-wing religious group," she continues. "But that's not it at all. Maybe we're slightly feminist, but mainly we're anti-violent."

With more than 100,000 "hits" a month on its Web site, the Coalition works for the day when its endorsement is as famous as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval--and the world of children's media polices itself. "If you really want to change the world," Levy says, "you must change what happens in the early years. By the time kids are teen-agers, they're formed."

For more information about the Coalition for Quality Children's Media, visit www.cqcm.org.

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