Picture the scene. You’ve settled into your cinema seats, popcorn in hand, all set to enjoy a relaxing couple of hours watching a feel-good family movie with your children, aged 11 and 13. From the trailers (and the film’s age rating), it looked like you were in for a couple of hours of hilarious, slapstick comedy, perfect for brightening a gloomy day. What could possibly go wrong?

It all started to unravel with the trailers. The first one featured two men getting up to all sorts of hijinks on a road-trip – images of scantily clad women, sun cream squirting suggestively onto cleavage, and a clearly stoned man smoking at a debauched-looking party loomed large on the screen. One of the scantily clad women screeched, ‘I’m going to party ’til I’m pregnant!’ So far, so awkward. The next trailer was for a parody version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which was followed by a trailer for a film about singletons partying in New York, and featured a woman flashing her ample assets in return for free groceries at the corner store, threatening to ‘tit punch’ her friend, then peeking up her friend’s dressing gown and lamenting the lack of grooming she saw there. My mild embarrassment turned to full-on squirming in my seat.

I breathed a big sigh of relief when the main film came on, but my relief was short-lived – it turned out that one of the underlying plotlines involved comparing the appearance and performance of two men’s ‘crown jewels’. Although we didn’t actually see anything graphic, plenty was implied – if any parent hadn’t already tackled the ‘birds and the bees’ chat with their children, this cinema trip would have pretty much done the job for them.

Double jeopardy

Whatever the age of your children, finding films that are suitable for them to watch can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, even if you do keep one eye firmly fixed on the film’s age rating (see below – ‘Hong Kong’s film age ratings guide’). For older children, concerns mainly focus on adult themes and graphic violence, and for younger children, parents are wary of violent scenes and increasingly tense – and seemingly obligatory – jeopardy moments. Of course, a bit of heart-stopping adventure and excitement can be a big part of the appeal of an engrossing film, but films as gentle as Paddington or The Good Dinosaur can have some children cowering on the edge of their seats, covering their eyes, crying, or even causing nightmares.

But tricky as it is, the issue of working out what is appropriate viewing for our children certainly isn’t a new one. After all, many people cite Bambi as one of the most upsetting films they’ve ever seen, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-catcher scared most 70s children witless, the Indiana Jones films had jeopardy aplenty, and mega-blockbusters of yesteryear, such as Grease and Dirty Dancing, certainly had their seamier undersides. But as the film industry has moved on – and films are more heavily marketed and easily accessible – some of the issues have intensified.

“Films have always had plenty of tension and jeopardy, but now they have ultra-realistic images, clarity of projection, and they are more immersive,” says independent film-maker and mum of two Tia Salisbury. “Film-making has become more sophisticated, and it might be that the ratings haven’t reflected that.”

Most countries have their own set of criteria for determining which age rating they should give a film, but evidence suggests that in some places, these have become more relaxed over time – a phenomenon known as ‘ratings creep’. According to a study by researchers from the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, violence, sex and profanity increased significantly in movies between 1992 and 2003. This issue is hotly debated, subjective, and difficult to quantify, but if there is a ratings creep, it could be because (as a 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics, which involved showing parents a series of film clips, concluded), “Parents become desensitized to both violence and sex in movies, which may contribute to the increasing acceptance of both types of content by both parents and the raters employed by the film industry.”

Mass market

Another gradual development in the film industry is that its business model has become much slicker. Tia says, “When there’s a new release, shops will be filled with plenty of merchandise. In the case of the Jurassic Park series, the shops are filled with dinosaur toys with the film’s logo all over the packaging. The actual film is aimed at older children, but younger children want to see it because they recognise the film’s logo and love the toys. Star Wars also falls into that category. In the latest film, there’s some very dark imagery, and it is only suitable for older children. So why, if the film is for teens, are they making merchandise for seven-year-olds?”

The logical conclusion of all this is that parents are then faced with a crescendo of pester power from their children to see films that might not be appropriate for their age and stage. But just as children are being drawn in by merchandising, parents are also targets for the film industry, says paediatrician Dr Michael Rich, MD, MPH, Director of the Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital. In his blog ‘Ask the Mediatrician®’, he says, “Part of the challenge for parents is that movies are made for (and marketed to) those who buy tickets. Even in the case of kids’ movies, then, the target audience is really the grown-ups: Story lines and dialogue with more adult meaning are included so that parents can enjoy aspects of the movie that seem to ‘go over the kids’ heads’.”

This analysis seems to be borne out by a UK survey in 2012, which showed that 40 per cent of parents allow their children to watch films that are rated as unsuitable for their age. Dr Rich comments on this trend in his blog, saying, “As we are all guilty of believing that our children can handle material that’s too advanced for them, we may inadvertently – with the best of intentions – expose them to films that are inappropriate for their age or stage of development.”

What’s the harm?

So if a child wants to see a film that might not be completely appropriate, and a parent wants to take them, what’s the harm? Obviously each child is different (and one child’s fear is another’s exhilaration), but it seems that, as well as the immediate possible tears and fears, there could be some longer-term consequences. In the case of violent content, research has shown consistently that children who see a lot of violence on screens are more likely to behave aggressively, have aggressive thoughts and unfriendly feelings and not care about people who are victims of violence. A study in 2010 published by Prevention Science (Journal of the Society for Prevention Research) showed that when children watch films for over-18s and violent movies, it may cause them to try alcohol at an early age because of its glorification.

But do children really take in, or fully understand, all of what they are seeing on the screen? According to Dr Rich, “The argument that violence and sex go over kids’ heads is faulty. There is all kinds of evidence that exposure to sexual media, regardless of camera angle, forms and affects kids’ understanding of who they are and how relationships work.”

Doing your homework

So, next time you fancy a family trip to the cinema, or a popcorn and pyjamas movie night, how do you go about choosing a film that will keep your children entertained, but not scare them senseless or provide an impromptu human biology lesson? Obviously the first thing to check is the film’s rating for a very rough guide of a film’s age appropriateness, but it is also worth asking around for other parents’ opinions. Many people suggest watching films yourself first, before you show them to your children, but for many parents that is an impractically time-consuming option.

Another useful reference are online review sites, where parents and children comment on films and suggest what they think the age rating should be. Review sites include: Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org); Kids-In-Mind (www.kids-in-mind.com); and Parent Previews (www.parentpreviews.com).

But what happens once you’ve done your homework and decided that you don’t want your child to see the film that “everyone in the class” has seen? Dr Rich advises, “If there are movies your kids want to see but you don’t feel comfortable with them seeing, explain to 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.”

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