PG-13 isn’t for young children
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First Published in The Boston Globe, June 7, 2008

Although the recently released movie ‘‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’’ is rated PG-13, it is being marketed to preschoolers through TV ads and movie-linked toys and merchandise.

This kind of marketing is unethical and has been going on for years. The Federal Trade Commission, in its landmark report published in 2000,exposed the movie industry for marketing to children younger than the ages the industry’s own rating system considers appropriate. Even so, the wrongful practice continues. Film companies have aggressively marketed PG-13 movies like ‘‘Hulk,’’ ‘‘Spiderman,’’ ‘‘X-Men,’’ ‘‘Iron Man,’’ and many others, to young children through toys, many of them violent, fast food tie-ins, TV ads, and merchandise. Promotions to young children are already underway for this summer’s violent blockbusters ‘‘The Incredible Hulk’’ and ‘‘The Dark Knight,’’ with hundreds of toys and child-targeted merchandise.

I have interviewed hundreds of parents who say they feel exasperated and helpless by how films are marketed to their children. One parent, Nina, said to me recently, ‘‘My 5-year-old son, Jacob, saw the ad on TV for the ‘‘Iron Man’’ toy at Burger King, and now he’s begging to get it and to seethe movie.’’ Such marketing campaigns confuse many parents. The toys are labeled appropriate for young children and carry no information indicating that the movie may not be. The industry says parents should decide what’s right for their children to see but then does everything to undermine parental choice and control.

From my years studying child development, I know that entertainment violence can confuse, scare, and desensitize children. Young children don’t see what adults see when they see violence on the screen. Violent images have a stronger impact on children because they can’t put these images in a context of motive and plot or pull away from them by thinking about something else. Children can’t be sure that the violence they see is pure fiction. Young children confuse fantasy and reality. Maybe this can really happen to them. Perhaps this frightening character can come through their window at night.

‘‘Transformer’’ toys armed with heavy machine guns for 4-year-olds and toys poised with rifles and guns in both hands for preschoolers teach powerful lessons: Violence is fun. We do it for play. Violence is how you settle conflicts; the world is made up of ‘‘good guys’’ and ‘‘enemies,’’ hurting others is OK — it’s even entertaining. As teachers around the country report, children bring these ‘‘social lessons’’ into their relationships in school and into their play, and both become more violent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and other medical groups have reviewed research and issued warnings: Viewing entertainment violence increases aggression and antisocial behavior and desensitizes children to violence, hardening them to the pain inflicted on others. This is troublesome because we want children to learn empathy for others in the early years, not develop a numbness to how others feel. We have seen many worrisome examples in recent years of young people who can shoot classmates and inflict pain on others without any apparent feelings for them.

We need government regulations that will stop the deliberate and unethical marketing of PG-13 films to young children. The Motion Picture Association of America could take action but it refuses to do anything. We need a film ratings board that operates outside of industry control.

Regulations wouldn’t limit choices for parents. They would still be free to take their children, no matter what their ages, to see the films parents choose. But the industry would no longer be allowed to interfere by enticing children with TV ads, toys, food tie-ins, and merchandise — with the decisions that parents want to make for their children. And if these harmful marketing practices were to stop, it would help the nation’s children take a step away from violence toward greater empathy and a stronger sense of security and emotional well-being.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch.  Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.