Earlier this year, Eli took his 8-year-old son, Jack, to see Iron Man 3, the latest installment of the big budget action series starring Robert Downey Jr. as an executive-turned-superhero. Jack loved superheroes, and he and Eli regularly read Iron Man and other comics together at night. They'd even watched the first two PG-13-rated Iron Man films together at home, where they could keep the lights on and fast-forward through any questionable bits. And all in all, neither was "that violent," Eli told me later, and Jack, then just 7, had loved them.
So when Jack asked if they could go see Iron Man 3 in the theater, Eli didn't really hesitate. It was rated PG-13 but, then, so were the others. And yet it was, Eli said later, perhaps the worst decision he'd made as a parent in quite some time.
Had he read about the film in advance, Eli would have learned that Iron Man 3 was far more violent than the first two films, with footage of terrorist-led executions and public bombings, which hit especially close to home in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings (which Jack had been particularly upset about). In one scene, a gun is held to a child's head. Jack burst into tears and asked to leave halfway through, and still had nightmares for days afterwards. "I felt like a terrible father," Eli said. "But it's not like Jack was the only kid in there. In fact, there were dozens of others around his age, maybe even younger."
It's not surprising. Research shows that kids are watching more violence in film and on TV than ever before--and not only despite parental supervision, but also with it. A study published in a 2008 issue of Pediatrics reported that almost 13 percent of kids between 10 and 14 watch "extremely" graphic depictions of violence in film. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, meanwhile, reports that the typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of big and small screen violence, including more than 16,000 murders, before age 18, and that such exposure may result in more aggressive behavior as violent heroes become role models. PG-13 films are a significant source of this violence--not to mention nudity, profanity, sexual situations, and references to drugs and alcohol--and yet an increasing number of parents sanction such films for their children who are far younger.
Why is that? At least some of the blame goes to the ratings system. Not all PG-13 films are created equal, in part because there are so many of them: Behind R, it is the most popular rating. (The Motion Picture Association of America has incentive to label films PG-13. The more people who can see the film, after all, the higher the potential profits.) But PG-13 is wildly inconsistent: Some films' "mature themes" translate to little more than subtle innuendo that might fly over a young kid's head and others to the mass destruction of entire football fields (see: the incredibly dark PG-13 blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises). Parents get confused. In cases where kids have done well with one PG-13 film, parents may consider them mature enough to handle all PG-13 films. Or they may "round down" and assume that if it's okay for a 13-year-old, then it's okay for an 11-year-old, or a 10-year-old... or maybe a 7-year-old who "won't get the dirty jokes anyway." It's a slippery slope.
In the wake of the Aurora and Newtown shootings, and because of this widespread confusion over and disregard of the PG-13 rating, parent groups have lobbied the MPAA to revise its system so that any films with graphic violence would merit an R rating. Instead, the MPAA announced a new campaign called "Check the Box" designed to give parents greater insight into why a film earned its rating. Critics argued that the move gave studios the appearance of doing something about media violence without actually doing anything at all. I agree.
But, ultimately, what kids watch isn't up to the MPAA. In truth, the responsibility for monitoring children's viewing of films lies with parents, who should investigate movies thoroughly before introducing them to any underage child. This needn't mean forgoing all PG-13 movies for children under 13. It just means educating yourself more in advance, and preparing to deal with any potential fallout. Find out what's in the movies your child wants to see, and then decide based on what you know about your kid. Just as all PG-13 movies are not made equal, neither are children, who mature at different rates and have different sensitivities.
It's also a good idea to have frank conversations with kids both before and after films about the difference between fantasy and reality, no matter how "mature" they are. According to child advocacy organization Children Now, research shows that children, especially those between the ages of 8 and 12, want their parents to talk with them about violence. After a violent movie--upsetting or not--ask your child his thoughts. Let him know a scene seemed scary to you, too--that he isn't alone--and then reassure him that what he saw was just make-believe. Let him know he's safe. An overexposure to violence can cause kids to become anxious and fearful.
But most of all, on the eve of the most popular season for PG-13 blockbusters, be willing to say no if you're just not sure a film is right for your child. It's okay to worry. It's part of the job.
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