When is it OK for kids to watch violence on TV?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 21, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara -

I find your column very useful and interesting. I come to you with a question of my own.

My husband and I got into a disagreement last night because my husband was showing my 3-year-old son "Pirates of the Caribbean." My husband acknowledged that certain parts were scary and he said he was going to skip those parts, but I was concerned in general about exposing my son to the concept of sword-fighting and violence in general. My husband fences as a hobby so I understand his desire to expose my son to his interests, but I felt that 3 was too young.

In the end, we agreed not to show him any more movies with violence until my son was older, but it was more my husband not wanting to argue with me. He still thinks I'm being overly concerned about things for nothing.

Am I off base? At what age is it OK to start exposing him to concepts like fighting and violence in movies?

From: Troubled Parent, North of Boston

Hi Troubled Parent,

Here's why I'm on your side:

1. "Pirates of the Caribbean" is rated PG-13. That means that the rating board thinks it's inappropriate for children 13 or younger. Violence and gore are among the reasons.

2. Research shows that the younger children are when they are exposed to violence on the screen, and the more often that exposure occurs, the more likely they are to be aggressive, to think that violence is the way to solve problems, and to become desensitized to aggression they see around them. It's also been correlated to problems in school.

3. Watching scary content on the screen can lead to nightmares in young children. In fact, research even shows these fears can last into adulthood.

I'm glad you and your husband reached an agreement for your son not to watch violent content. You ask at what age it's appropriate: The longer you can hold off, the better. When my son was 3, he had nightmares from his first movie, Disney's "Fantasia." I learned my lesson, and you know what? So did he. At 6, he had strict rules for himself about what he would and wouldn't watch (the music had a lot to do with it) and what was particularly wonderful was that his friends were never disrespectful.

By the way, It's wonderful that your husband wants to share his passion with his son and I hope he can find healthier and more appropriate ways to it -- including learning to delay his own gratification.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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17 comments so far...
  1. While I agree that holding off is best, it's not always possible (perhaps your child is at a friend's house and sees something that you wouldn't have shown them). I think the key is to talk about it. Talk about what they saw, remind them that what happens on movies and TV isn't real, etc. If it's a more realistic movie or show, you can talk about how the characters behaved and how they made the other characters feel, and brainstorm better ways to act. This is probably all overkill at 3, but by the time a child is in elementary school and going to friends' houses without a parent, they are capable of those discussions, in my experience.

    Posted by akmom October 21, 10 06:41 AM
  1. I agree with akmom. While in this particular instance, it seems the Pirates of the Caribbean might not have been a good idea for the 3 year old, I don't think that blanket rules about exposure are always a smart idea. My husband and I provided routine childcare for a 3 year old boy a few years back...the child's parents shielded him from all violence and anything "scary", even hiding the front pages of the Globe from him, lest he see any "scary" pictures. The child was easily spooked by everything as a result, and often came home from school crying because he had seen people "punching" "shooting" and using "guns" and "swords". None of these things were happening at the preschool, of course, but the other children had used these words, and since the child had virtually zero exposure to these things, he had an inappropriate reaction to hearing these words from his classmates. It wasn't healthy for him at all.

    Posted by soundofthesun October 21, 10 08:46 AM
  1. Watched violent movies when I was 5 or 6.. There was nothing crazy in the movie, but still some violence. I'm a fine citizen. Complete overreaction. The rating board is a joke and most of those PG-13 movies are fine for younger children.

    Posted by overreaction October 21, 10 08:53 AM
  1. I will never understand why parents feel the need to push movies on their kids that are way over their head. Why in the world would someone show a 3 year old a movie that he has no way of remotely comprehending what is going on. Forget about the violence, sex, language, etc. Kid's that age can barely speak, let alone understand what is happening on screen. Basically they are just viewing a bunch of images and confusing the poor kid. There have been a few movies we have watched with our daughter where she is constantly asking what is happening and we would have to keep pausing and explaining it to her. That's no fun. Show age appropriate movies that they can enjoy on their own without an interpreter. Commonsensemedia.org is a great website that does a much better job than the MPAA rating system, which I agree with "overreaction" is a joke. Even so, anyone should know it is useless to show a PG-13 movie to a 3 year old.

    Posted by Dad October 21, 10 09:49 AM
  1. I'm not sure why a child being upset by ideas of punching, shooting, guns, and swords is an "inappropriate reaction". Sounds like a sensitive child--nothing wrong with sensitivity. I think being horrified by violence is a wonderful trait to develop in our children--maybe we will have hope for a more peaceful world in the future.

    I also laughed at the statements "even hiding the front pages of the Globe from him"....I see no reason whatsoever that young children should see the front page of the newspaper, which is most often filled with terrifying (especially to a child) images that are far beyond their cognitive understanding, even with conversation and explanation, and can lead to a pervasive feeling that the world is not safe if things like this are happening every day (young children also don't have a real understanding of "those things are happening far away and couldn't or aren't happening here"). Heck, those front page images even make adults feel that the world is going to hell in a handbag!!

    I agree that talking about and helping them process and make sense of what they see is very important, but it is similarly important to understand cognitive development so that you know that, no matter how much you discuss it, there are things--in preschool children, for example--like problems with fantasy reality distinctions, that are simply not affected by conversation.

    Lastly, the whole "I did that and I turned out fine" is not exactly a sound guideline for raising children on any subject. There are a gazillion (or more) factors that lead to whether we turn into "fine citizens", and yes, exposure to violence is one of them, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily good for your kids.

    Posted by Robin October 21, 10 09:59 AM
  1. I agree with everything "Dad" and especially "Robin" mentioned. In my opinion, people are way too lax when it comes to what they allow their kids to watch on tv and in movies. My boys are 8 and 10 and they've seen very few PG movies. My 10 year old has read hundreds of books, including the Harry Potter series, and I won't even let him see those movies! The images on screen are so much worse than he could imagine in his head.

    I remember a friend taking her son to see King Kong when he was three! He has also seen every other similar movie that has come out since then (Transformers, Pirates, etc.). She even made fun of my son because he didn't like the violence in the Disney movie, Ratatouille. People today are so de-sensitized to violence. It's not fair to expose young kids to these images and themes. They will either be scared of it, and think about it a lot, not realizing those things don't happen regularly, or maybe even worse - they will just assume it's normal and not be phased by it. Even all the Hannah Montana and the other nonsense Disney-type shows who parents say are harmless, are completely inappropriate for "tweens" nevermind preschoolers, but the majority of little kids watch it. It always drives me nuts.

    Posted by mom2boys October 21, 10 10:43 AM
  1. Normally I'm pretty conservative with media consumption. My oldest was six before we got cable so all he saw for kids' shows were on PBS with the occasional Nick Jr. fare at someone else's house, and most movies were rated G or PG. My step-daughter was very afraid of movies like Batman or Star Wars so we made sure that they were never on when she was with us. However, my younger boys (now ages 4 & 6) have been, by virtue of their older siblings, raised on Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Spiderman, Transformers, Batman, Star Wars, and professional hockey and it's not the end of the world. We don't have toy weapons, they are not violent or aggressive children, they love books and puzzles and age-appropriate movies like Toy Story, etc.

    I wouldn't go out of my way to introduce violent or over-stimulating or non-age-appropriate viewing material to my kids but I'm no longer horrified by people who let their kids watch things that, 10 years ago, I never would have allowed for my older kids.

    Posted by Jen October 21, 10 11:53 AM
  1. Use some common sense. A lot of movies can be watched and fast-forwarded through the scarier parts, such as Disney movies that are all fun and tweeting birds and singing fish until the five minute peril right before the end. And some of the superhero movies are way over the heads of small children, as well as too dark and violent, but some of the TV cartoon versions aren't too bad. I'd say three is too young, but a five year old ought to be able to handle a Superman or Spiderman cartoon.

    And there is a difference between keeping viewing of violence to an age appropriate minimum, and making a kid live under a rock. My daughter had a friend whose mom was so anti-violence and anti-scary themes that she described the Big Green Monster as making a "silly" face instead of a "scary" face. She couldn't come to our Christmas party because she wasn't allowed to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the old cartoon version) because she wouldn't understand how someone could be mean on purpose, it just wasn't a concept in her world view. That's taking it too far.

    Posted by di October 21, 10 12:07 PM
  1. Thank you, Robin and mom2boys. Thank goodness at least some posters have a broader world view than to allow activities just because 'that's what everyone does in our society'.

    Posted by Cathy October 21, 10 01:01 PM
  1. We settle a lot of these discussions with a visit to www.commonsensemedia.org, a not-for-profit, non-partisan ratings group that reviews movies, games, music, and some books and rates them for age appropriateness. For example, they rate Pirates as age appropriate for 12 and up, not age appropriate for less than ten and a half, and iffy in between.

    Posted by Carol October 21, 10 01:07 PM
  1. Robin has hit everything that I would try to say. Just because violence is prevalent in our society doesn't make it normal , or appropriate. I will let my kid live in her happy bubble as long as I can. Why shouldn't I? We become well aware of the junk in life soon enough.

    Posted by lala October 21, 10 01:57 PM
  1. I'll have to check out commonsensemedia.org -
    I use kidsinmind.com to find out about movies. They don't give an opinion, but specific details to help you decide if you think a movie will be appropriate for your own children.

    Posted by mom2boys October 21, 10 01:57 PM
  1. I second, or third or fourth, the belief that the Pirates movies are really way too much for kids under eleven or so. The just won't understand the plot twists and turns and sexual humor, and at that point the movie is just a barrage of violent or creepy images.

    A lot of the Disney movies--the real cartoons like The Little Mermaid--are also not appropriate for preschoolers. There's no harm at all in waiting to show your kids your favorite movies. Let them watch some good PBS TV--shows which are all proven BY RESEARCH to be age-appropriate and educational as well as enjoyable, not to mention the right length. Kids under 5 should be watching 30 minutes at a time, not over two hours at a straight run.

    Posted by momof2 October 21, 10 02:12 PM
  1. I agree with some of the previous posters. I am going to do my best to show my child age appropriate shows/movies. My brother-in-law used to complain that Cailou (sp?) was too wimpy... for his 3 year old! Is a 3 year old supposed to be tough??? The kid was afraid of the fox on Dora; I assume he wasn't ready for any tough shows.

    Posted by & October 21, 10 09:24 PM
  1. I think that relying on ratings systems is lazy parenting. But you have to make your own choices based on your value systems. Love Actually has an R rating because of the naked couple...but I would have zero problem letting my young child see the movie because I don't have a problem with it. I wouldn't let them watch Godfather, but Pirates of the Carribean? Eh, they'll probably see it fairly young (under 10 for sure) as it's a favorite movie and I don't have a lot of issues with the violence in it as it's not overly gory.

    For us, it's meaningless excessive violence that's a problem. Horror flicks, mafia type violence, action movies, war movies...those are all off the board until our kids are older.

    @Mom2Boys--you have NO IDEA what is in your sons heads and it's pretty presumptuous to think that you do.

    Posted by C October 22, 10 12:48 AM
  1. My kids don't watch inappropriate stuff at home. However, we don't live in a bubble. They visit friends or family who have different rules about what's appropriate, and they see things that wouldn't be shown at home. I've found that the best way to cope with that is to try to watch the same thing with them, so I know what it really is, and to talk about it. That doesn't mean they necessarily get a blanket pass to watch it whenever they choose, but sometimes I've seen that something I had dismissed as inappropriate was actually OK, and then their choices are expanded. Does this work for a 3 year old? Probably not. But for a 5 year old, it does have value, and the conversations get really interesting as they get older (they are now 8 and 10).

    I second the recommendation of kids-in-mind.com as a way to figure out whether or not a movie is appropriate for your child - it does a great job of describing the kinds of situations/language/violence in the movie.

    Posted by akmom October 22, 10 06:55 AM
  1. I am still trying to figure out why Nick JR is a little sketchy to some people!!!?? Or the little mermaid??? Maybe in the LIttle Mermaid there are scenes but nothing that will scar a child for life or turn him/her into some crazed lunatic. I am not talking about the Pirates movie or horror movies etc. With that being said, I agree with many of the posters on this topic..to some degree. We as parents, have to be careful of what we let our kids watch without them living in a bubble the rest of their lives.

    Posted by J October 22, 10 08:13 AM
 
17 comments so far...
  1. While I agree that holding off is best, it's not always possible (perhaps your child is at a friend's house and sees something that you wouldn't have shown them). I think the key is to talk about it. Talk about what they saw, remind them that what happens on movies and TV isn't real, etc. If it's a more realistic movie or show, you can talk about how the characters behaved and how they made the other characters feel, and brainstorm better ways to act. This is probably all overkill at 3, but by the time a child is in elementary school and going to friends' houses without a parent, they are capable of those discussions, in my experience.

    Posted by akmom October 21, 10 06:41 AM
  1. I agree with akmom. While in this particular instance, it seems the Pirates of the Caribbean might not have been a good idea for the 3 year old, I don't think that blanket rules about exposure are always a smart idea. My husband and I provided routine childcare for a 3 year old boy a few years back...the child's parents shielded him from all violence and anything "scary", even hiding the front pages of the Globe from him, lest he see any "scary" pictures. The child was easily spooked by everything as a result, and often came home from school crying because he had seen people "punching" "shooting" and using "guns" and "swords". None of these things were happening at the preschool, of course, but the other children had used these words, and since the child had virtually zero exposure to these things, he had an inappropriate reaction to hearing these words from his classmates. It wasn't healthy for him at all.

    Posted by soundofthesun October 21, 10 08:46 AM
  1. Watched violent movies when I was 5 or 6.. There was nothing crazy in the movie, but still some violence. I'm a fine citizen. Complete overreaction. The rating board is a joke and most of those PG-13 movies are fine for younger children.

    Posted by overreaction October 21, 10 08:53 AM
  1. I will never understand why parents feel the need to push movies on their kids that are way over their head. Why in the world would someone show a 3 year old a movie that he has no way of remotely comprehending what is going on. Forget about the violence, sex, language, etc. Kid's that age can barely speak, let alone understand what is happening on screen. Basically they are just viewing a bunch of images and confusing the poor kid. There have been a few movies we have watched with our daughter where she is constantly asking what is happening and we would have to keep pausing and explaining it to her. That's no fun. Show age appropriate movies that they can enjoy on their own without an interpreter. Commonsensemedia.org is a great website that does a much better job than the MPAA rating system, which I agree with "overreaction" is a joke. Even so, anyone should know it is useless to show a PG-13 movie to a 3 year old.

    Posted by Dad October 21, 10 09:49 AM
  1. I'm not sure why a child being upset by ideas of punching, shooting, guns, and swords is an "inappropriate reaction". Sounds like a sensitive child--nothing wrong with sensitivity. I think being horrified by violence is a wonderful trait to develop in our children--maybe we will have hope for a more peaceful world in the future.

    I also laughed at the statements "even hiding the front pages of the Globe from him"....I see no reason whatsoever that young children should see the front page of the newspaper, which is most often filled with terrifying (especially to a child) images that are far beyond their cognitive understanding, even with conversation and explanation, and can lead to a pervasive feeling that the world is not safe if things like this are happening every day (young children also don't have a real understanding of "those things are happening far away and couldn't or aren't happening here"). Heck, those front page images even make adults feel that the world is going to hell in a handbag!!

    I agree that talking about and helping them process and make sense of what they see is very important, but it is similarly important to understand cognitive development so that you know that, no matter how much you discuss it, there are things--in preschool children, for example--like problems with fantasy reality distinctions, that are simply not affected by conversation.

    Lastly, the whole "I did that and I turned out fine" is not exactly a sound guideline for raising children on any subject. There are a gazillion (or more) factors that lead to whether we turn into "fine citizens", and yes, exposure to violence is one of them, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily good for your kids.

    Posted by Robin October 21, 10 09:59 AM
  1. I agree with everything "Dad" and especially "Robin" mentioned. In my opinion, people are way too lax when it comes to what they allow their kids to watch on tv and in movies. My boys are 8 and 10 and they've seen very few PG movies. My 10 year old has read hundreds of books, including the Harry Potter series, and I won't even let him see those movies! The images on screen are so much worse than he could imagine in his head.

    I remember a friend taking her son to see King Kong when he was three! He has also seen every other similar movie that has come out since then (Transformers, Pirates, etc.). She even made fun of my son because he didn't like the violence in the Disney movie, Ratatouille. People today are so de-sensitized to violence. It's not fair to expose young kids to these images and themes. They will either be scared of it, and think about it a lot, not realizing those things don't happen regularly, or maybe even worse - they will just assume it's normal and not be phased by it. Even all the Hannah Montana and the other nonsense Disney-type shows who parents say are harmless, are completely inappropriate for "tweens" nevermind preschoolers, but the majority of little kids watch it. It always drives me nuts.

    Posted by mom2boys October 21, 10 10:43 AM
  1. Normally I'm pretty conservative with media consumption. My oldest was six before we got cable so all he saw for kids' shows were on PBS with the occasional Nick Jr. fare at someone else's house, and most movies were rated G or PG. My step-daughter was very afraid of movies like Batman or Star Wars so we made sure that they were never on when she was with us. However, my younger boys (now ages 4 & 6) have been, by virtue of their older siblings, raised on Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Spiderman, Transformers, Batman, Star Wars, and professional hockey and it's not the end of the world. We don't have toy weapons, they are not violent or aggressive children, they love books and puzzles and age-appropriate movies like Toy Story, etc.

    I wouldn't go out of my way to introduce violent or over-stimulating or non-age-appropriate viewing material to my kids but I'm no longer horrified by people who let their kids watch things that, 10 years ago, I never would have allowed for my older kids.

    Posted by Jen October 21, 10 11:53 AM
  1. Use some common sense. A lot of movies can be watched and fast-forwarded through the scarier parts, such as Disney movies that are all fun and tweeting birds and singing fish until the five minute peril right before the end. And some of the superhero movies are way over the heads of small children, as well as too dark and violent, but some of the TV cartoon versions aren't too bad. I'd say three is too young, but a five year old ought to be able to handle a Superman or Spiderman cartoon.

    And there is a difference between keeping viewing of violence to an age appropriate minimum, and making a kid live under a rock. My daughter had a friend whose mom was so anti-violence and anti-scary themes that she described the Big Green Monster as making a "silly" face instead of a "scary" face. She couldn't come to our Christmas party because she wasn't allowed to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the old cartoon version) because she wouldn't understand how someone could be mean on purpose, it just wasn't a concept in her world view. That's taking it too far.

    Posted by di October 21, 10 12:07 PM
  1. Thank you, Robin and mom2boys. Thank goodness at least some posters have a broader world view than to allow activities just because 'that's what everyone does in our society'.

    Posted by Cathy October 21, 10 01:01 PM
  1. We settle a lot of these discussions with a visit to www.commonsensemedia.org, a not-for-profit, non-partisan ratings group that reviews movies, games, music, and some books and rates them for age appropriateness. For example, they rate Pirates as age appropriate for 12 and up, not age appropriate for less than ten and a half, and iffy in between.

    Posted by Carol October 21, 10 01:07 PM
  1. Robin has hit everything that I would try to say. Just because violence is prevalent in our society doesn't make it normal , or appropriate. I will let my kid live in her happy bubble as long as I can. Why shouldn't I? We become well aware of the junk in life soon enough.

    Posted by lala October 21, 10 01:57 PM
  1. I'll have to check out commonsensemedia.org -
    I use kidsinmind.com to find out about movies. They don't give an opinion, but specific details to help you decide if you think a movie will be appropriate for your own children.

    Posted by mom2boys October 21, 10 01:57 PM
  1. I second, or third or fourth, the belief that the Pirates movies are really way too much for kids under eleven or so. The just won't understand the plot twists and turns and sexual humor, and at that point the movie is just a barrage of violent or creepy images.

    A lot of the Disney movies--the real cartoons like The Little Mermaid--are also not appropriate for preschoolers. There's no harm at all in waiting to show your kids your favorite movies. Let them watch some good PBS TV--shows which are all proven BY RESEARCH to be age-appropriate and educational as well as enjoyable, not to mention the right length. Kids under 5 should be watching 30 minutes at a time, not over two hours at a straight run.

    Posted by momof2 October 21, 10 02:12 PM
  1. I agree with some of the previous posters. I am going to do my best to show my child age appropriate shows/movies. My brother-in-law used to complain that Cailou (sp?) was too wimpy... for his 3 year old! Is a 3 year old supposed to be tough??? The kid was afraid of the fox on Dora; I assume he wasn't ready for any tough shows.

    Posted by & October 21, 10 09:24 PM
  1. I think that relying on ratings systems is lazy parenting. But you have to make your own choices based on your value systems. Love Actually has an R rating because of the naked couple...but I would have zero problem letting my young child see the movie because I don't have a problem with it. I wouldn't let them watch Godfather, but Pirates of the Carribean? Eh, they'll probably see it fairly young (under 10 for sure) as it's a favorite movie and I don't have a lot of issues with the violence in it as it's not overly gory.

    For us, it's meaningless excessive violence that's a problem. Horror flicks, mafia type violence, action movies, war movies...those are all off the board until our kids are older.

    @Mom2Boys--you have NO IDEA what is in your sons heads and it's pretty presumptuous to think that you do.

    Posted by C October 22, 10 12:48 AM
  1. My kids don't watch inappropriate stuff at home. However, we don't live in a bubble. They visit friends or family who have different rules about what's appropriate, and they see things that wouldn't be shown at home. I've found that the best way to cope with that is to try to watch the same thing with them, so I know what it really is, and to talk about it. That doesn't mean they necessarily get a blanket pass to watch it whenever they choose, but sometimes I've seen that something I had dismissed as inappropriate was actually OK, and then their choices are expanded. Does this work for a 3 year old? Probably not. But for a 5 year old, it does have value, and the conversations get really interesting as they get older (they are now 8 and 10).

    I second the recommendation of kids-in-mind.com as a way to figure out whether or not a movie is appropriate for your child - it does a great job of describing the kinds of situations/language/violence in the movie.

    Posted by akmom October 22, 10 06:55 AM
  1. I am still trying to figure out why Nick JR is a little sketchy to some people!!!?? Or the little mermaid??? Maybe in the LIttle Mermaid there are scenes but nothing that will scar a child for life or turn him/her into some crazed lunatic. I am not talking about the Pirates movie or horror movies etc. With that being said, I agree with many of the posters on this topic..to some degree. We as parents, have to be careful of what we let our kids watch without them living in a bubble the rest of their lives.

    Posted by J October 22, 10 08:13 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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