Children's Movies May Be More Violent Than G Rating Implies

From the WebMD Archives

May 23, 2000 -- It's among the most violent children's movies ever released, but A Bug's Life got a G rating from the movie industry. Only Quest for Camelot has more screen time devoted to hurting, eating, or otherwise killing characters. Happily Ever After comes in third.

A new study documents the violence found in 74 children's animated, G-rated movies. Results of the researchers' two-month video-viewing marathon are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Among parents, "there's a general sense that G-rated means it's OK," says the study's author, Fumie Yokota, MS, who is with Harvard University's School of Public Health. "What we found is that it might be providing a false sense of security about content. There's at least one act of violence in every film. We're not saying it's good or bad, but that parents may want to look into violent content before kids watch it."

Yokota and colleague Kimberly M. Thompson, ScD, viewed virtually every children's animated film ever made, dating back to 1937's Snow White. (It contains eight minutes of violence, with two fatal injuries, and four types of weapons, including poison).

Quest for Camelot, a 1998 release, has 24 minutes of violence, with three fatalities. A Bug's Life, also a 1998 release, has three fatalities and contains 18 minutes of violence overall. Happily Ever After (1990) has nearly 18 minutes of violence, with five fatalities.

The researchers define violence as "intentional acts to cause harm, to coerce, or for fun, where the aggressor makes some physical contact that has potential to inflict injury or harm." Accidents or calamities, such as earthquakes and storms, were not included in the definition.

An "incident of violence" was defined as an "uninterrupted display of a character or a group of characters engaged in an act of violence, or the result of a violent off-screen action" (for example, when a shoe thrown by a character off-screen is seen hitting the target character).

The authors admit they made subjective judgments to characterize the violence, whether it was light (or funny), dark (or sinister), neutral, or some combination of the three, they say. And since their definition of "violence" was broad, they also tried to characterize the intent of the violent act -- whether there was intent to injure, or whether it was used to defend against an attacker.

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What they found in A Bug's Life, for example, was that "the bad character Hopper, in various scenes, intimidates his own group of thugs by slapping them around and menacing the ant colony in various ways," Yokota tells WebMD. "There are several chase scenes. And when Hopper does get killed, there's a fairly dramatic scene where a bird munches him up. ? There is physical force. And there was a lot of slapstick, pushing each other around, even among the good guys."

While violence in kids' movies has been discussed at length, it has been given little scientific scrutiny, Yokota says.

"We found that there's at least one act of violence in all of these films, which was surprising," Yokota tells WebMD. "There was also a huge range in amount. The film with the least amount of violence had six seconds, whereas the film with the most had 24 minutes. But overall, the average was 9.5 minutes per film."

Least violent was My Neighbor Toroto, a 1993 release that was very popular in Japan, Yokota says. It was translated into English and released only in video format in America.

Yokota hopes the study's findings will prompt parents to talk to children about how they perceive on-screen violence.

"We're not trying to make a value judgment on what violence means and how kids might interpret it, but ? there's a message there that when good guys are doing these things, it's kind of funny and not as serious, but when bad guys do it, it's bad and sinister," Yokota tells WebMD. "That's not always the case, but seems to be the general trend.

"Parents should consider co-viewing so that when violent scenes come up, they can talk to children about those scenes ? understand what's going on in the child's head, see how they're interpreting it."

Several web sites provide parents with reviews of recent releases. For example, the web site called "Screen It" provides detailed lists of every kind of objectionable material in movies, from language to sexual content to alcohol and drug use, in addition to violence, Yokota says.

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But is aggression always bad? When Simba in The Lion King does nothing to prevent hyenas from killing his uncle, is there a lesson for us all?

These movies are full of valuable life lessons, including how to fend off bullies, Jon A. Shaw, MD, chief of adolescent and child psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine, tells WebMD. Most humans and animals, he says, use aggression to defend themselves, their family, or their territory from harm.

"Clearly, bullies use violence in inappropriate ways. I think that's what the author is concerned about," Shaw tells WebMD. "But children have to learn to protect themselves against violent attacks by others. ? We know from studies of bullies that children most likely to be bullied are very shy, anxious, and timid and usually wear a sign that says 'If you hit me, I will not retaliate.' These films, in a culturally sensitive way, are trying to teach children how to handle situations.

"I would be less concerned with G-rated films than some of the R-rated films, where there clearly is excessive exposure to coercive violence, sexual violence, in a context where people are really given free license to express aggression, and violence independent of cultural values."

Vital Information:

  • A survey of 74 animated, G-rated movies showed that all of them contained at least one act of violence.
  • Researchers say that G ratings may be providing a false sense of security for parents.
  • Parents may want to consider pre-screening or co-viewing these movies, or they can check out web sites, such as "Screen It" (http://www.screenit.com, that monitor movie content.
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