Can watching MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" really lead a 5-year-old boy to set his family's mobile home on fire?
Can seeing a film, which shows actors as schoolboy athletes testing their mettle by lying in the middle of a highway as cars whiz past, actually lead teen-agers to try it for real?
The questions are part of a growing concern over the connection between popular culture and real-life behavior by young people. And there's an urgency to the asking of them in the wake of the violent deaths of a child and a teen-ager, which parents of the victims have attributed to TV and film.
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes, according to experts on the effects of media. Furthermore, they say it so surely and so clearly that it raises another large question: Why as a society don't we seem to understand the connection or be willing to act on it?
In Ohio, two weeks ago, a 5-year-old boy set his family's mobile home on fire, killing his 2-year-old sister in the blaze. The boy's mother charged that episodes of "Beavis and Butt-head" -- in which the two animated adolescents set fires and said that fire is "cool" -- incited her son.
Last week, in two incidents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, one teen was killed and two were critically injured when they were hit by vehicles while mimicking scenes from the feature film "The Program," according to police and the parents of the dead teen.
Hollywood made more headlines in recent days with its responses to the incidents.
MTV removed all references to fire in future scripts and past episodes of "Beavis and Butt-head." It also rescheduled the series so that it now airs only at 10:30 p.m. instead of 7 and 10:30 p.m., as it had. MTV says it believes removing the earlier showing will reduce the size of the preadolescent audience for the show.
Disney, the distributor of "The Program," responded by removing from the film and all promotional clips the scene which shows football players lying on the highway. The move was without precedent.
As debate rages on radio talk shows and in newspaper columns over the incidents and Hollywood's responses to them, there is certainly no shortage of opinions on "Beavis and Butt-head."
But what's missing from the debate are some fundamental facts about TV and its effects -- facts which could help inform those opinions.
In the case of preadolescents and "Beavis and Butt-head," it's important to know that young children can't tell always the difference between TV and reality.
"Up until age 8, it's very difficult for children to differentiate between TV fantasy and reality," says Leonard Eron, a professor the University of Michigan. Dr. Eron has spent more than 20 years studying the effects on children of viewing TV violence.
Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches a course on TV and children at the University of Maryland in College Park, agrees.
"For kids of that age, at least up until about age 5, television is part of their social reality, and that information is highly credible," Dr. Parks says.
"It's not quite as credible as information from their parents. But in cases of something like coolness, television has more credibility, because one doesn't look to your parents for information on what's cool.
"Young kids and adolescents will look to media for coolness. And, of course, MTV is the major arbiter of cool."
Experts say there are other aspects of "Beavis and Butt-head" that encourage imitation by young children. One is the fact that it's animated. Research done for "Sesame Street" shows that children quickly come to understand that animated shows are programmed for them.
"So, a kid who wouldn't necessarily imitate a pyromaniac on a crime-of-the-week reality show might attend to Beavis and Butt-head in a very different way . . . and pay a lot more attention to the message," Dr. Parks says.
"MTV says it's so surprised that preadolescents are watching, when its target audience for Beavis was 12 and up, but it shouldn't be surprised at all. The research is there, 30 years of it, suggesting who would watch, why and how. All they had to do was look at it."
Media effects vary person to person, influenced by a host of social and psychological variables. Not everybody who watches "Beavis and Butt-head" sets fires. And it's not clear that Beavis and Butt-head could influence kids by saying that calculus is cool. But, indeed, research showing a cause-and-effect relationship between TV viewing and behavior is there -- so much of it that debate about how the 5-year-old got matches or why his mother let him watch MTV are almost irrelevant in the face of it.
For example, in discussions in American Studies classes at the University of Maryland last week about "Beavis and Butt-head," students who started out defending MTV and blaming the boy's mother ultimately came to agree that virtually any child can get matches and that it's almost impossible for parents to monitor a child's TV viewing 24 hours a day.
Some students even came to understand the social-class snobbery underlying some criticism of the boy's mother: They looked down on the woman as a result of the one fact they knew about her, which was that she lived in a mobile home.
As for athletes imitating football players in "The Program," there's ample research on the likelihood of that happening, too.
In the book "Imaginary Social Worlds," University of Maryland at College Park Professor John L. Caughey describes how people form imaginary relationships with media figures and then try to imitate the actions of those figures in their own lives.
"Sports provide a good example," Dr. Caughey writes, citing cases from his own research of persons who patterned not only their games, but their lives on the media versions of the lives of athletes such as Jimmy Conners and Bill Walton.
Media depictions of athletes "exert a pervasive influence on social conduct," Dr. Caughey concludes. "Given such evidence, it may seem odd that the existence of imitative media effects is still debated."
But it is debated while the evidence mounts that another generation is being victimized by media excess.
And when the facts from 40 years of research on media effects start to win the day, the battle can almost always be reversed by waving the bloody flag of freedom of expression. That's the route MTV is now traveling in its defense of "Beavis and Butt-head" and its dire warnings of how much poorer a republic this will be if they are forced to "eviscerate" the show and not depict such things as Beavis and Butt-head torturing small animals.
Dr. Parks points out that children have always had a special place in discussions of freedom of expression and First Amendment rights: Children are seen as an imperfect audience that needs to be protected.
"The big question for us now in relation to TV is whether we are willing to go without in order to protect our children," she says.
"Are we willing to not see so much violence on TV and film in order that our children not see it? Are we willing to see a watered-down "Beavis and Butt-head"?
"Heretofore, the answer's been no."
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun's television critic.