Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed “slut lists” and sex in the media.
Here’s this week’s question:
Q: My 10- and 12-year-old children want to go to PG-13 and R rated movies with their friends, whose parents think that the sexual innuendo and violence “goes over their heads” because the movies don’t show the graphic details of the sex act or the actual bullet hitting the person. Aren’t the lessons implied and taught damaging to children regardless of the camera angle?
-Anxious about Angles in Winnetka, IL
A: Dear Anxious,
The argument that violence and sex go over kids’ heads is faulty for a few reasons. One is that PG-13 movies often do show bullet hits, and they can be incredibly violent (for example, see this review of PG-13 flick Surrogates). It’s true that sex is usually implied, but that is true in virtually all movies that aren’t rated NC-17. Let’s assume, however, that we don’t see bullet hits in PG-13 movies, and let’s acknowledge that most sexual activity in movies is implied. Does that mean that these elements go over kids’ heads?
Absolutely not. First, kids age 10 or 12 are not only very aware of sex but are also extremely curious about it. In fact, one of our studies showed that when even younger kids, between the ages of 6 and 8, watched TV shows with adult themes, like Friends, they were more likely to start having sex between the ages of 12 and 14. And, as you mention, there is all kinds of evidence that exposure to sexual media content—regardless of camera angle—forms and affects kids’ understanding of who they are and how relationships work.
With violence in particular, what is labeled as PG-13 is incredibly inconsistent. The rating system is not scientific or reliable because it simply reflects what the ratings board thinks parents will allow their kids to see—it has nothing to do with the effect on the child. Therefore, although ratings can be one form of guidance, it’s really up to you to figure out what is optimal for your individual children. When making decisions, take into consideration what kinds of content your children have been exposed to already, whether you’ve discussed sex or relationships with them before, whether they tend to be scared by violence, etc.
If there are movies your kids want to see but you don’t feel comfortable with them seeing, explain to your them, as best you can, that these movies would affect them in harmful ways. You can say that just as you wouldn’t let them drive the car or drink alcohol at this age, you are not going to let them watch this movie right now. The goal is not to negotiate or plead but to share your rationale, in a spirit of respect and love for your kids, so that they understand why you’re setting this limit. Approach this as an issue of health and safety—because that’s exactly what it is.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
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