Movies (R-Rated): Protecting Your Child

How do children respond to violent movies?

Children have been reported to have the following symptoms after they have watched violent movies:

  • Bedtime fears
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Daytime flashbacks of something frightening
  • Disruption of concentration and study
  • A fearful view of the world

Since these movies are made to frighten teenagers and adults, these findings are not surprising.

Frequent exposures to violent material can also cause a child to become insensitive to human suffering. Violent movies may have an even greater impact on disturbed children. Some of them imitate what they see in the movies.

What causes bad reactions to movies?

Most bad reactions are caused by movies that contain horror, graphic violence, or sexual violence. The content of violent movies has changed over the last 10 years. These movies emphasize mutilation. Thanks to improved special effects, in today’s movies we can see the details of torture or brutality in slow, agonizing close-ups. For example, recent movies have shown a head being chopped off, a brain being blown up, the disfigurement of a face with a knife, a neck being slashed, and a hypodermic needle being plunged into an eyeball.

Children 12 years old or younger are most at risk for severe reactions. Most elementary school children don’t have the adult defense mechanisms needed to cope with these movies. These children are most threatened by movie villains who seem real and play on their deepest fears—for example, surprise attack, kidnapping, torture, or death. Some of these mad slashers, unlike real people, are portrayed as indestructible and thus leave the young viewer feeling helpless. Children feel especially vulnerable if they identify with the victim in a movie. Children less than 7 or 8 years old think concretely. If such violence can happen on the screen, they reason that it could happen to them that night.

Most research on the impact of violence on children has studied the effect of television violence. This research shows that TV affects children’s behavior.

No research review committee would ever approve a study in which children are exposed to R-rated movies. However, you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to know that viewing graphic violence in movies, which are much more powerful than anything on TV, is harmful to children.

How long will the effects last?

Without treatment a child’s fears and preoccupations can last 1 to 6 months. With help, your child’s fears usually lessen or go away in a few weeks.

How can I protect my child from movie violence?

  • Understand the movie rating system.

    The R rating means that children under 17 years are not admitted to the theater without a parent. Movies may get an R rating for different reasons. This rating is given for nudity, profanity, or violence.

    Nudity, depending on the context, may be harmless. Profanity in the movies has contributed to the common use of profanity on elementary school playgrounds, which means your child will probably hear profanity without going to R-rated movies.

    It is the violence in a movie that disturbs children. The degree of violence is often given in the rating—for example, graphic violence or rape.

  • Forbid all R-rated movies until your child is 13 years old.

    Never allow a child who is under 13 years old to see any R-rated film, no matter how liberal you may be about nudity and profanity. If your child is 13 to 16 years old, carefully consider his maturity and sensitivity when you are deciding whether he is ready to view some of these movies with you. Don’t allow your child to see movies with graphic personal or sexual violence before age 17. These movies are not a required life experience at any age.

  • Select your child’s movies.

    Don’t let your child see a movie unless you know the rating and have read a review. Don’t let your child pressure you into letting her see a film that is potentially harmful. The decision to see something that is possibly harmful is an adult decision.

    Keep a list of movies you approve of. Look at movie reviews for parents.

    Movie Reviews for Parents

  • Monitor what your child is watching on cable TV, network TV, and rented videos.

    Uncut versions of violent movies are readily available through cable TV and video rentals. Don’t allow your child to turn on the cable movie channel unless he has your permission to view a specific program. Even some of the edited versions of movies on network TV can be too frightening for young children.

    Don’t let your younger children watch the programs that you have approved only for your older children, including the evening news. Young children who view fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, warfare, or terrorism on the news become worried about their personal safety.

  • Warn your child about violent movies outside the home.

    Protect your youngster from being unintentionally victimized by film violence. Be especially vigilant about slumber parties or Halloween parties. A popular party game in middle school is renting a horror movie and seeing how much of it your friends can watch before they become ill.

    Tell your child to call you if the family he is visiting or a babysitter is showing scary movies. Teach him to walk out of movies that make him scared or upset. Warn him to obey theater policies and not to sneak into R-rated movies.

  • Discuss any movie that upsets your child.

    Respect your child’s fears. Don’t make fun of them. Help him talk about what scared him. Help him gradually come to grips with fears caused by a movie.

  • Use common sense.

    Protect your child’s mental health from unnecessary fears. R-rated movies are never harmless for a child in elementary school. Use the movie ratings and your common sense to choose age-appropriate movies for your child. Never let your child see anything that frightens you.

Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-06-23
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.

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