First, a disclaimer: No adorable cartoon critters were harmed in the writing of this column. Unfortunately, certain characters in the G-rated animated films many of our children watch are not so lucky. Fistfights, swordplay, falls from great heights, insults leading to injury and (my favorite) "squishings" increasingly dominate many of the movies we let our kids watch, leading to the inevitable--an earnest Harvard study. Normally, I'd rather have the Roadrunner drop an anvil on my head than endure another research paper on violence permeating the media--especially one that views with alarm Tigger's playful bowling over of Winnie the Pooh. But as I read the Harvard report, I found that it offers a useful reminder: many popular animated videos contain violence that shouldn't be emulated and scary scenes that young viewers need to have explained to them by adults.
The researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health studied 74 animated movies made between 1937 and 1999, counting and categorizing the acts of violence, the type (comic or malicious) and the wide variety of weapons used, from Mickey's broom in Fantasia to the swords in Mulan. The researchers suggest that a G rating may no longer be sufficient to reflect the content of animated movies. The study highlights the explosion of video watching among very young children, and should spur parents to monitor even the animated films that their youngest children watch.
Every adult remembers where he was when he learned that Bambi's mom had been shot by a lone gunman. For many of us, it was an emotional rite of passage. We clutched a grownup's hand in the darkened theater. But imagine watching Bambi or Beauty and the Beast on video, not as a seven-year-old but at four, and without a parent present to explain the law of the cartoon jungle. Kids ages two to five spend an average of 1 1/2 hours watching videos each day, yet children up to age five need adult help to process what they are seeing. Children use stories to explore the feelings they can't yet express. Fairy tales and legends give children important exposure to their darker anxieties: people roasting in the oven in Hansel and Gretel or being eaten by a giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. But without an adult to help children articulate what they are seeing, these stories can be disturbing or can desensitize them to the consequences of real violence.
Many parents assume that the Disney imprint and a G rating on a video mean that a three-year-old can safely enjoy it. But Suzi Schiffer Parrasch, who reviews TV and videos for FamilyWonder.com says, "Every Disney film I watch is violent. They all have very dark, scary moments. Parents should know every single frame of these films, just as they know every page of a storybook." Two excellent websites give parents detailed descriptions of the content of animated movies: kids-in-mind.com and screenit.com Both sites offer ratings of movies that go well beyond the G.
At my house we also rely on the frying-pan test to judge whether a young kid is ready for feature-length animation. When she understands that something hit by an object doesn't assume the shape of the object (i.e., Jerry smacking Tom in the head with a frying pan), I figure she's ready for anything Disney can throw at her--as long as I'm with her, and as long as the video isn't Bambi. I'm still trying to get over that one.