The Violent Truth About Kids' Movies

·Senior Editor
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A barracuda eats Nemo’s mom within the first five minutes of “Finding Nemo.” GIF by YouTube/Disney.

Kids’ movies are no walk in the park. It’s something I learned quickly when I began introducing them to my daughter at age 3, starting with the flawless “Mary Poppins” but rejecting most everything else for being land mines of fear, violence, death, and traumatized orphan children (Thanks, Disney cartoons.). But then sometimes I’d nostalgically recall the classics I was raised on and think, “Are they really so bad?”

Now a study out of London has confirmed that yes, they are so bad — in fact, they’re worse.

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“Rather than being innocuous and gentler alternatives to typical horror or drama films, children’s animated films are, in fact, hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” and “rife with death and destruction,” conclude study leaders Dr. James Kirkbride, professor of psychiatry at the University College London, and Dr. Ian Colman, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa.

For the study, published on Tuesday in the BMJ, the researchers analyzed 45 top-grossing animated children’s films from 1937 (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) to 2013 (“Frozen”). Among their gruesome findings: The main characters in children’s films were more than twice as likely to die as their counterparts in adult films — and almost three times as likely to be murdered.

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And the films used for comparison were not for the faint of heart, either; the team studied the two top-grossing adult movies from each year they studied a children’s film, including “Pulp Fiction,” “What Lies Beneath,” and “Black Swan.” The study also found that the level of violence has not let up since 1937 when Snow White’s evil stepmother, was struck by lightning, forced off a cliff, and crushed by a boulder while being chased by seven angry dwarfs.

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SPOILER ALERT: Simba’s dad gets killed off in “The Lion King.” Photo by Disney.

“We were most surprised about the increased numbers of murders in kids’ films,” Kirkbride, a Sir Henry Dale Fellow, tells Yahoo Parenting in an email. “The killing off of Simba’s dad Mufasa, who is murdered by his evil Uncle Scar with the help of some stampeding wildebeest in ‘The Lion King,’ is a brutal cinema moment. And there are many other examples in kids’ films — Bambi’s mom getting shot, Nemo’s mom getting eaten by a barracuda, and Syndrome being tossed into a jet engine at the end of ‘The Incredibles.’ This final example might raise dubious moral implications, like killing the bad guys is okay.”

And the effect on kids isn’t pretty: Classic findings from 1999 found that movie violence led to anxiety, nightmares, and greater aggression and violent behavior among children in real life; more recent findings have also linked onscreen violence with similar behavior off-screen. One study from 2013 even surveyed hundreds of psychologists and media experts and found a “broad consensus that violent media leads to increased aggression in children.”

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A scene from “Bambi,” 1942: Talk about trauma! Photo by Disney

But deciphering which films might be truly appropriate for your child, based on his or her age or sensitivity level, can be a challenge — often because film ratings cannot always be trusted, according to Barbara Wilson, professor of communication at the University of Illinois.

“The ratings are established by a board of seven Los Angeles area parents — real mothers and fathers — whose full-time paid job is to review films. Its membership is not intentionally selected to include educators, childhood development experts or others with special training in the effects of media on children,” Wilson writes in an article for the Center for Media Literacy. “Unfortunately, the MPAA’s preoccupation with what is offensive to adults comes at the expense of what is arguably a more important question: What types of portrayals are really harmful to children?” 

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Syndrome of “The Incredibles.” Photo by Pixar.

A helpful workaround, suggests Kirkbride, is to consult the extensive collection of highly specific kids’ film reviews at at Common Sense Media.

“Choose wisely, and know your kid,” Betsy Bozdech, executive editor of the ratings division at Common Sense Media, a non-profit that provides reviews on all types of media, tells Yahoo Parenting. Bozdech says she wasn’t too surprised to hear of the study’s findings, as “there always seems to be a dead parent or two” in Disney films. But, she admits, “a story where nothing happens isn’t very interesting. There has to be some sort of conflict that will resonate with kids, because having everything happy and nice will get boring as you get older.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that parents should be exposing their preschoolers to onscreen death and destruction, says Bozdech, a mother of a 4-year-old. But parents can settle in with their kids to watch what they deem to be appropriate (rather than letting them watch alone), and then use the opportunities to discuss difficult topics with their children. 

“These animated films could offer one way for parents to introduce the concept of death to young children, who are naturally inquisitive and may have questions about it while watching the films,” Kirkbride says. “We suggest these films are a great way of entertaining young children in a safe, family-based environment where parents can be on hand to answer any questions their kids have.”

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