Twenty-four teens are placed in an arena, pitted against one another in a no-holds barred fight to the death. If this sounds to you like a nightmare no kid would ever want to witness, think again: it's actually the plot of The Hunger Games, the best-selling young adult book-turned-screen saga at a theater near you.

For many parents, this represents the next in a series of blockbuster films that push the envelope on violence, sex and everything in between. Though the Motion Picture Association of America offers a ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17) to guide kids toward age-appropriate content, it can often feel like MPAA ratings are inconsistent or misleading. In fact, a 2008 study by economics professors David M. Lang from CSU Sacramento and David M. Switzer from St. Cloud State University found that "the average sex rating for PG-13 movies in 2007 is equivalent to the average sex rating for R movies in 1993...movies today involve more sex, violence and profanity than they did 15 years ago."

But are a few extra sword fights really that big of a deal? The short answer is yes: movies that expose kids to violence or sex before they're ready can negatively impact your little one's development in a serious way. The American Association of Pediatrics revealed in a 2001 report that "media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed." If you're on the fence about which flicks will work for your kids, take heart in the fact that you can take action. Use the tips below to help you decide if a film is age-appropriate for your kid.

  • Do your research. Before screening the latest James Bond film with your 14-year-old, check reviews that assess the film for sexual and violent content. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization studying kids' consumption of media and technology, offers parent-minded critiques and a recommended minimum age for popular films. Recent reviews suggest age 13 for The Hunger Games and Bully (both carry MPAA ratings of PG-13).
  • Total recall. Think back to your child's reactions to flicks in the past—was your 10-year-old terrified of Twister? If so, it's probably best to avoid the newest natural disaster blockbuster. Every kid is different, so expect varying reactions to movies. If you're on the fence, err on the side of caution; it's always better to delay a scary movie than to have your tween suffer through nightmares for a month straight.
  • Try the book. Reading the book version of a film before seeing it in theaters can help you decide if your kid's ready for the blockbuster equivalent. Reading the book together will help give you an idea of what to watch for onscreen, and it's an educational way to spark your kid's imagination and get him excited about the story that's being told, instead of simply being mesmerized by special effects. Just remember that directors often play up sex or gore in books to heighten cinematic drama, so these elements may be considerably stronger onscreen than off.
  • Ask for advice. Chat up your parent pals to get their input on the latest big-screen installments. If your best friend's 8-year-old was panic-stricken for weeks after seeing Lord Voldemort, you can rest assured that your little one should pass on the newest Harry Potter. Be sure to get the opinions of people you trust to exercise similar caution with their own children; just because your neighbor lets her tiny tots take in Jaws doesn't mean your child's ready for an introduction to the underwater monster.
  • Watch at home. Having the option to pause, stop or rewind on a small screen can make it less intimidating for your tot than seeing drama unfold in the theater. Additionally, watching at home gives you the chance to comment out loud on particularly prickly scenes, reminding your kid that Darth Vader is just another actor in costume.
  • Stick to your guns. If your tween laments that all his friends have seen the scary movie du jour, know that he's probably not lying—a recent Dartmouth study published in Pediatrics found that of 48 percent of kids aged 10-14 have seen Scary Movie, despite it's R-rating. However, just because "everyone else" has screened the flick, it doesn't mean it's a good idea for your kid. If you've decided that a particular film is off-limits, stand your ground and don't back down. Tell your middle-schooler that you appreciate his respect for your opinion, and offer to treat him to that age-appropriate blockbuster he's been dying to see instead.
  • Have a back-up plan. If you realize 20 minutes in that a film is too much for your kid to handle, don't be embarrassed to leave the theater. Go into the film with a secure backup plan in place, such as an age-appropriate movie or trip to the ice cream shop, to fall back on if the film's too mature. Vocalize your plan to your child before the starting credits roll—this way, you'll have a better chance of avoiding wheedling, whining or refusal to leave.

Though you can't control the gory details of every Hunger Games fight sequence, you can make an effort to learn what works best for your child. Taking action through the tips above will help you look beyond the MPAA ratings, and make going to the movies a stress-free treat for all involved!