Movie Ratings: How Helpful Are They, Really?
Rating the Ratings
"The basic mission of the ratings system is a simple one: to offer to parents some advance information about movies so that parents can decide what movies they want their child to see."
-- The Motion Picture Association of America
Another rainy weekend: time to pack up the kids, pick up the popcorn, and spend the afternoon sampling Hollywood's latest family fare. Movies are a godsend to weary moms and dads, but a growing chorus of researchers offers this warning to parents: Don't attach much meaning to G, PG, or PG-13 ratings.
"Sixty-seven percent of movies are rated R. Beyond that, you need more information," says Jim Judy, creator of ScreenIt!, a website offering comprehensive movie reviews for parents. Kim Thompson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard University's School of Public Health, agrees that ratings offer incomplete information. Her research suggests that ratings are, in fact, downright misleading.
"The G rating doesn't tell you anything about the amount of violence in these films," says Thompson, co-author of a recent study of animated G-rated movies available on video. All 74 titles reviewed for the study contained at least one act of violence; in half the films, at least one person was killed. Topping the list, with 24 minutes of screen violence, was The Quest for Camelot, followed by A Bug's Life.
Thompson's research directly contradicts assertions by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that "the violence is at a minimum" in G-rated films. (For more on the MPAA's ratings system, go to www.mpaa.org. Although the MPAA cites polls showing that parents consistently rate its ratings "very useful" or "fairly useful" in helping them determine which movies to see, some experts say changes in the way movies are made and viewed has rendered the industry's guidelines nearly obsolete.
Fact, Fantasy, or Nightmare Fodder?
It's important to remember that the very nature of movie-going has undergone big changes for children:
- Screen images are more intense than ever. The powerful tool of 3D animation, while enhancing the visual experience for adults, can make young children feel overwhelmed and scared.
- The deliberate blurring of fact and fantasy -- "fake" dinosaurs, for example, rumbling across "real" landscapes -- can confuse kids.
- Many children experience movies by watching them on video without an adult present to help them sort out or "process" the stories and pictures they see.
While few would argue that moviemakers deliberately set out to terrorize kids, there are definite reasons why scary stuff makes its way into family fare.
"Most of these animated adventure features are really nightmare fodder for young children," says Joanne Cantor, University of Wisconsin professor and author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV & Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them "The reason is they want to make a movie that's going to appeal to older kids as well," says Cantor. Clearly, broader appeal means bigger bucks at the box office. In the quest for profits, the concerns of parents are easily swept aside.
What Scares Kids: An Ages & Stages Guide for Parents
If you've given up on the MPAA ratings system and want to tackle the ratings game yourself, you'll need two things: detailed descriptions of a movie's content (a thorough reading of current reviews) and developmental information on what is likely to frighten your child at various ages. In her book, Mommy, I'm Scared, Professor Cantor offers parents the following guidelines:
Ages 2-7: "Seeing is Believing"
How things look will have the greatest effect on many kids in this age group. Visual images -- monsters or scary animals -- can be deeply disturbing, "whether realistic or fantastic," says Cantor. By age six or seven, kids begin to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, but may still be disturbed by animation as well as live action images. Kids in this age group may also be upset by movies that show the death of a parent (The Lion King), the physical transformation of characters (Snow White), and natural disasters (The Wizard of Oz).
If you don't want a child in this age group to see a particular movie, you might: Offer an alternative movie, rather than "just say no."
Ages 7 to 12: "Reality Sets In"
Children this age are going to be less disturbed by cartoon images, but are still upset by some realistic-looking threats and dangers, especially when movies depict scary stuff involving kids (child kidnappings, abuse, or issues that a child may have seen or heard about in the news).
If you don't want a child in this age group to see a particular movie, you might: Say something like, "Lots of kids have had problems with this one." That way, your child is less likely to feel immature, or singled out as the only kid unable to "handle" the flick.
Ages 13 and Up: "Frightened by What We Don't Know"
Many teens will be troubled by movies about aliens, occult forces, demonic possession, or "unexplained phenomena," says Cantor, who is now studying the effects of The Blair Witch Project on teens. Scary movies produced in a documentary or made-to-look-real format can be very frightening for adolescents.
If you don't want a teen to see a particular movie, you might: Say something like, "Remember when you saw (such-and-such film) and it upset you? Why don't you wait until it comes out on video?" Or, if a teen seems determined to see a movie with friends, remind him or her, "Remember, you can always leave the theater, and it's not a big deal."