When is it OK for parents to let their kids watch violent movies?
Parents are more likely to let their kids see violent PG-13 movies if they feel the mayhem is "justified", a new study suggests.
The study, of 610 US parents, found that parents were less disturbed by gun violence in PG-13 movies when they deemed it justified. That included the typical action-movie scenario where a hero defends others from the bad guys.
In general, parents were more lenient about letting their own kids see that kind of violence, versus "unjustified", random violence.
In addition, most said that movies with justified gun violence were suitable for a 15-year-old. Films with unjustified violence, meanwhile, were typically deemed suitable for a 16-year-old.
No evidence of harm
But one worry is that kids who see a lot of supposedly justified gun violence might learn that gun use is acceptable when you feel threatened, according to lead researcher Daniel Romer.
"We're concerned there is a risk that kids might be influenced by this, especially if there's a gun in the house," said Romer, who is research director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Right now, there is no evidence that is the case, he stressed. "We can't say that these movies are harmful to kids," Romer said.
Romer and his colleagues published their findings online in Pediatrics.
Christopher Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University, who has studied the correlation between media violence and kids' aggression – and found it lacking.
'Sanitised' gun violence
"The research in this field is inconsistent," said Ferguson, who was not involved in the new study.
He said it's no surprise that parents would have different attitudes toward senseless violence and violence coming from a hero defending the innocent masses, for example.
The question is whether that matters to kids. "There's no evidence, from this study, that these movies are bad for kids," Ferguson said.
For the study, Romer's team recruited 610 parents who had at least one child between the ages of 6 and 17. The parents watched short clips from several movies online; most were PG-13 and all featured relatively "sanitised" gun violence – free of the blood and graphic content that would typically earn a film an age 18 rating.
Parents were asked whether they thought the violence in each was justified; what their emotional reaction was; whether they would let their own child watch it; and what they thought was a generally appropriate viewing age for the movie.
Parents should 'do their research'
Overall, parents were more lenient when it came to violence they deemed justified. But most still thought that even justifiable violence was too much for 13 and 14-year-olds.
As it stands, PG-13 ratings do note whether a movie contains violence. Romer suggested that when parents see that warning, they "stop and think", and consider whether they want their kids to see it – even if it's the bloodless sort that gets into PG-13 movies.
Since the 1980s, when the PG-13 rating was introduced, gun violence has become increasingly common in those movies, Romer said. Romer questioned whether that sanitised gun violence – by not showing the gory consequences – could actually be worse for kids in certain ways. In South Africa the Film and Publications Board assigns film age ratings as well as the regulation of media content for South African viewers.
Ferguson suggested that parents "do their research" before letting their kids see a movie with violent content. But he also said it can be pretty straightforward: If your teenager wants to see the latest PG-13 action flick, the odds are high it will contain violence of the justified type.
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