Finding Nemo—too violent for children under age 4?

We’ve heard of the studies—the research that shows that even some G-rated movies are inappropriate and potentially harmful to young children’s health. The research is out there, but largely ignored by parents.

Victor Strasburger, MD, noted pediatrician and author of many American Academy of Pediatrics position statements regarding children, adolescents, and the media, explains that over 2,000 studies have shown that viewing media violence is a risk factor for aggressive behavior in children. “Of all the aspects of media, parents seem most concerned about sex and drugs and least concerned about violence, and yet that’s what we know the most about,” Strasburger says. “That’s what the research has been about in the past 50 years.”

What exactly have the studies shown? Michael Rich, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, says media violence affects people in three basic ways. First, media desensitizes people to violence, Rich says, “and the way this plays out in kids’ lives is that they’re less likely to stick up for the kid getting picked on on the playground.” Second, media violence causes an increase in general fear and anxiety. And third, it can lead to an increase in aggressive thoughts and behaviors. “This is, in fact, the smallest effect in terms of numbers,” Rich says, “but it’s relevant even if just one kid picks up a gun and goes to school with it.”

Rich, also on the faculty at the Harvard School of Health, explains that what concerns doctors and researchers is that nobody knows who is predisposed to picking up the gun—who is most vulnerable. And this is why, Rich says, all parents should be selective in what their children watch.

“It’s always been amusing to me that we want kids to ‘just say no,’” Strasburger says, “but parents need to learn to ‘just say no,’ and they don’t know how.”

Strasburger says parents should be familiar with the concept of “ratings creep”: what used to be R-rated is now PG-13; what used to be PG-13 is now PG. The ratings have crept up over time, and parents are more and more frequently exposing their children to films that are inappropriate for their age.

Kimberly Thompson, Sc.D.,Harvard professor and director of the Kids Risk Project, explains that film producers provide information about their movies to the Rating Board, and parents have to trust that the producers have done the right thing. “The government doesn’t have any regulatory authority,” Thompson says. “It’s a really different situation than it is with food, for example.”

Rich says that censorship is not the answer, however. “What I think won’t work is legislation to restrict or censor this stuff out. The first amendment is far too important to use the blunt instrument of the law,” he says. “I think what we need to do is start to respect the media we use and understand how we are changed by them. We need to embrace that and say, ‘Let’s be changed in ways we want to be changed.’”

It’s up to parents to be informed and to make appropriate decisions for their children when it comes to media, Rich says. Yet, in homes and theaters across the country, parents are consistently allowing their children to watch films and television programs with far too much violence.

Why is this happening? Rich thinks parents are overwhelmed by the task of trying to protect their kids from the media. It’s impossible to completely shelter them, and many parents, Rich speculates, simply give up altogether.

But research shows that it’s important parents don’t give up. And one manageable way to be proactive is to accept the media for what it is and help kids become critical users of media. “You can model critical viewing,” Rich says. “At the beginning, you teach them to use media in the same ways you teach them to feed themselves and brush their teeth.”

Modeling critical viewing might mean thinking aloud as you make decisions about what to watch and what not to watch, or thinking aloud after viewing a film or TV program and processing what you saw.

Strasburger agrees that critical viewing is a necessary component to navigating media successfully, but he says parents need to recognize that there are significant differences between adults and children and their ability to view media critically. A lack of understanding on parents’ part could be one reason, Strasburger says, that parents continue to expose children to media that is harmful.

“The problem is parents look at media and view it the way adults do, and they don’t understand that children are more vulnerable and don’t have the critical viewing skills that adults have,” Strasburger says. “What may seem fine for a 30-year-old is completely inappropriate for a 5-year-old.”

Web sites such as Common Sense Media can be a helpful resource to parents who want to understand what is and isn’t appropriate for their children, and why. Common Sense Media, which has an advisory board consisting of medical professionals, media professionals, and educators, enables parents to rate media in different categories and give an overall age recommendation. For instance, Finding Nemo is recommended for children ages 4 and up. Categories such as “sexy stuff,” “language,” “consumerism,” and “drinking, drugs, and smoking,” are all rated as “not an issue” for Finding Nemo, but the category of “violence and scariness” is given a rating of 3 out of 5.

Here’s what Common Sense Media has to say about Finding Nemo and “what parents need to know”:

“Parents need to know that even though there are no traditional bad guys in this movie, there are still some very scary moments, including creatures with zillions of sharp teeth, an apparent death of a major character, and many tense scenes with characters in peril. At the beginning of the movie, Marlin’s wife and all but one of their eggs are eaten by a predator. There is a little potty humor. The issue of Nemo’s stunted fin is handled exceptionally well—matter-of-factly but frankly.”

Here’s what Common Sense Media says families can talk about after viewing Finding Nemo, prompts for critical viewing discussions:

“Families can talk about how parents have to balance their wish to protect their children from being hurt (physically or emotionally) with the need to let them grow up and learn how to take care of themselves. They could talk about Nemo’s disability and about how everyone has different abilities that make some things easier for each of us to do than for most people, and some things harder. How do you know what your abilities are, and what do you do to make the most of them?”

The overall recommendation? Don’t let your past media choices for your kids influence your future choices. It’s not too late to get started using some parent-tested common sense! Visit Common Sense Media for more information. Also visit the Kids Risk Project and Rich’s recently launched Ask the Mediatrician, where you can post questions related to media and your child’s health.