Should Children see Hunger Games?

What do parents need to think about before children view violent movies?

Posted Mar 24, 2012

Parents have to decide whether to allow children to see the movie Hunger Games, and they need to understand the pros and cons involved. Pro: It's a wildly popular book with a strong young heroine and a captivating story set in the post-apocalyptic future. Con: The story involves children killing children, and it's extremely violent. I will make recommendations for parents of young children (don't) and for parents of older children (very carefully).

Hunger Games has a PG-13 rating, despite the clearly violent nature of the story. We're not just talking about teenagers seeing the movie. According to research, parents of 12% of 10 - 14 year olds let them see R rated violent movies. Bloggers are talking about bringing their 8-13 year olds to see the movie, and finding a theater full of "tweens." One described it as a young teenaged girls' Star Wars.

The books were not just best sellers but a cultural event. rated the book as acceptable for 12 -13 year olds. Some teachers used it for explorations of class, inhumanity, societal injustice, and other important themes. However, viewing a giant screen of violent imagery is different than reading a book.  Researchers have talked about the problems of children viewing violent media since the 1970's. 

Most literature dating back to the 1970's emphasizes the negative impact on children of exposure to violent media. In a comprehensive review of ten years of research, Susan Villani, M.D. concluded that the ever-increasing time that children and adolescents are spending with TV, movies, Internet, and video games "leads to further concerns about the potential for increased social isolation and limited capacity to understand human relationships. Excessive media use...skews the child's world view, increases high-risk behaviors, and alters his/her capacity for successful, sustained human relationships." (Impact of Media on Children and Adolescents: A 10-Year Review of the Research, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40:4, April, 2001)

In 2003, researchers studying the impact of violence in movies and video games zeroed in on the impact of violent media on attitudes and empathy, the ability to identify with the feelings and experiences of others. This speaks directly to Villani's concern about the effect of viewing violence on future relationships. They concluded that loss of empathy was more clearly correlated with playing violent video games, but "both video game and movie violence exposure were associated with stronger proviolence attitudes." (Violence Exposure in Real-life, Video Games, Television, Movies, and the Internet: Is There Desensitization? Funk, Baldacci, and Pasold, Psychological Science in the Public Interest Dec 2003).

In 2010, Eugene V Beresin, M.D agreed that viewing violence influences children's attitudes towards violence in an article written for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Dr. Berensin writes, "In general, violence on television and in movies often conveys a model of conflict resolution. It is efficient, frequent, and inconsequential. Heroes are violent, and, as such, are rewarded for their behavior. They become role models for youth. It is "cool" to carry an automatic weapon and use it to knock off the "bad guys."

Beresin concludes that the typical script of the "good guy" using violence for a righteous cause may seem to vulnerable children like a justification for using violence to retaliate against people in real life. It validates a philosophy of "the ends justify the means." Violence becomes an acceptable means of solving problems. Beresin also suggests that children watching violence can become desensitized to it, so violence becomes a more acceptable part of their lives. (The Impact of Media Violence on Children and Adolescents: Opportunities for Clinical Interventions)

 How violent is the movie anyway? Parents interviewed as they took their children to the movie generally didn't know. A reviewer helps by spelling it out:

I would argue that the movie, violence and themes are completely inappropriate for young children. Parents of young children pressured by "everyone else has seen it" will have to be more parental and less popular. Take the kids and some friends and do something age appropriate and really fun like a climbing wall in an activity center.

For children 12 - 13 and up, the questions raised by the researchers have to be faced. Does seeing children being killed, even if less graphically than described in the book, make violence more normal, acceptable, and less disgusting than it should be?  It does. Children's logical thinking is in the process of development. Can we counter the impact of the glamor of the movie image with logical understanding of the real issues involved? We need to be involved in the thinking process.

Sanctioned violence isn't just in the media. Fighting is an accepted part of the game of hockey, and a recent scandal in the NFL dealt with money paid to purposely injure other players. Do we wonder aloud what happens to the wife and children, mother and sister of that player who was seriously injured, as well as to the player himself?  Children are repeatedly given the message that violence is OK, and it's OK as a means to an end, whether the end is saving the world or winning the game. We don't think about it and we don't talk about it.

Parents deciding to allow their children to see this movie have to take into account the maturity and temperament of their children. A child who is anxious shouldn't see this movie just because everyone else is. It's hard to shake violent imagery. A child who is less mature in being able to think through emotions is probably not a good candidate.

What is critical is that parents of young teens who do allow their children to see this movie see it as well, and talk about the issues of violence, how acceptable is it to use violence, and the effects of violence on real people. We need to talk about our values in our relationships, how we treat each other and our moral views of how we view the world and each other. If we don't work hard at this, we shouldn't be surprised when our children's views and behavior reflect what they've seen.

About the Author

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders and anxiety.

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