What Actually Makes A Film Inappropriate For Children?

The Conventional Wisdom says that parents and caregivers should take care when choosing the entertainment children consume. Violence, drug references, sexual content, etc. are all considered inappropriate for children, and as such, the movie and TV industries go to great lengths to inform parents about films’/TV shows’ content, and keep children away from “inappropriate” material.

But why, exactly. What is the actual harm in children watching that sort of content?

Let me introduce you to my hypothetical and nonexistent 10-year-old son, Portnoy. I’m not going to watch “The Hangover” with him. But why shouldn’t I? Bad language? His mother and I cuss a blue streak. Violence? He’s seen worse on “Tom & Jerry.” Sexual content? Most of it will go over his head, and what he does “get” will likely just embarrass him. Alcohol/drug references? He’s seen me drink beer, wine, and everything else, and I’m sure he’s fully aware of why I go outside with my bong and come back in coughing and smelling of skunk.

So where, exactly, is the harm in letting children consume “inappropriate” content?

Do note that I’m not arguing with the notion that children should be kept from “inappropriate” content. I’m just trying to understand why.

Conventional wisdom probably also says you should limit the amount of foul language, drug references, and sexual content a child experiences in the home. If you consistently, say, inject heroin in front of your child, then of course there’s no concern in letting them watch someone do it on film.

Observing behavior normalizes behavior - if you watch people repeatedly smoke marijuana, for example, then you’re more likely to do it yourself, or at least be open to the possibility. And young people are way more susceptible to suggestion than adults.

That’s really the crux of it - it’s about the power of suggestion.

And kids can separate cartoon violence from “real” violence - watching someone have an anvil dropped on their head and watching Wile E. Coyote having an anvil dropped on his head are far from the same thing.

When my daughter was 6, she wanted to see the movie Twister. It was rated PG-13, however, and I explained it was for older kids. She asked why and so I looked into it.

The MPAA rated Twister PG - 13 for intense depiction of very bad weather.

She rolled her eyes. We went to see the movie. She enjoyed it.

Conventional wisdom (MPAA) has traditionally been pretty puritanical.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

Out of curiosity, do you live in an area where tornades are common?

I can imagine some young kids (including, possibly, myself at that age) seeing Twister and then getting really freaked out any time there’s an actual tornado warning in their area.

Some kids get freaked out or have nightmares over things that leave other kids totally unfazed. That’s why the warnings call for “parental guidance” and say things like “may be inappropriate…” The parent is the best judge of what their child is ready for or is likely to be too bothered by.

Indeed. My in-laws had a tree come down on their house, badly damaging it, during a severe storm (though it wasn’t a tornado); my twin nieces, who are now 16, were about 6 or 7 when that happened. One niece was completely unaffected by it, but the other became deathly afraid of severe thunderstorms for several years after that.

Their mother (my sister-in-law) loves the movie Twister, and watches it regularly; the niece who became afraid of storms would, not surprisingly, leave the room when her mom was watching that film, as it made her extremely uncomfortable.


This is not a factual question. It’s a Great Debate if I ever saw one. Moving.

Nope. We discussed that before seeing the movie and again afterwards. She was (and remains) very analytical/factual.

This is really the right takeaway. I like the content warnings at commonsensemedia.org. They give an age estimate, but also include the specifics about what content goes into that estimate. I can give weight to the things that I and my kids care about, and ignore the stuff that we don’t.

Media can reenforce and normalize what kids see at home. There is some evidence that children in violent environments are more likely to commit acts of violence themselves if they are also exposed to violent media.

It’s not as simple as violent media = aggression, it’s more like one factor that contributes when all other conditions are right.

This study demonstrates that juvenile delinquents are more likely to prefer violent media.


The studies show that: In experimental studies, even brief exposure to media can cause desensitization to real‐world violence, increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and decreases in empathy and helping behavior. Short‐term effects of media violence and basic psychological processes produce cumulative effects over time, as explained by well‐established theories and research and social, developmental, and cognitive processes. Indeed, habitual exposure to media violence produces relatively stable changes in personality traits, such as trait aggression. Longitudinal research—studies that follow individuals over time—rule out plausible alternate explanations to these findings (for example, that the association between media violence and aggressive behavior is entirely the result of inherently aggressive people chasing more violent media). Media violence exposure is linked with physically hurting others, using words to hurt others, and deliberately damaging the relationships of others.

Here’s kind of an overview of the theoretical framework and current findings.

Wayyyy back in the day my husband worked with one of the leading researchers studying aggressive behavior in children. It’s a lot harder to be blase about exposing kids to violent media after having had that experience.

https://kids-in-mind.com/ is also pretty good, breaking down all instances of sex/violence/language in movies. They do have very liberal definitions… ‘a couple kiss after they say their wedding vows’ is a content warning you’ll see often… but it does approach this from a secular angle.

Another vote for this explanation. You know your own kid, you know what goes on in your own house. Proceed accordingly.

Know your own child.

When my daughter was young. Disney’s animated “Snow White” was too intense for her. That evil cat stalking the mice totally freaked her out. She simply can’t handle visualizations of violence at all. We had to stand in the hallway during the scene in “Frozen” with the wolves. Those things didn’t bother my son, but he was scared by the skeletons in “Coco”; they didn’t scare my daughter. Neither of them were shocked nor made comments about the bare-breasted nursing in “Clash of the Titans”.

IMDb has a Parents Guide for all their listings. It’s usually very comprehensive and helpful.

For Twister:

I had a very sensitive empathetic child and I screened accordingly. I was a similar child myself, but my parents didn’t believe in that old-fashioned stuff. I wish they did. Of course television was very bowdlerized in those days, but my parents’ library wasn’t. I was also a precocious reader, and reading The Painted Bird or The Story of O in early grammar school is not something I would wish on anyone.

In general, the sex was mystifying but disturbing, and the violence was terrifying and nauseating.

I was reading stuff like VC Andrews where sexual coercion was de rigueur and I often wonder how it influenced an entire generation of girls and how we think about relationships.

When it comes to kids it’s not the naughty bits I’m worried about so much as the depiction of healthy relationships and sexuality, etc.

I think extremely violent movies like Saving Private Ryan are inappropriate for children. Explicit sex scenes are best left for middle teens and above, ditto for full nudity. I’d say The Hangover is pretty safe, unless he finds the plot stupid, in which case you’ll have to listen to Portnoy’s complaint.

I’ve known kids and parents for whom it wasn’t a case of the parents needing to be there to help the kid avoid fear when watching something scary, but the other way around.

This is exactly our experiences with Sophia. It is not the violence/sex/drug/alcohol use in movies which is a priori “bad” for kids, it’s when these behaviors are apparent in the home and then reinforced in the media where you will likely have problems.

Despite all my stories about abusive family businesses and raising a kid in the Connected Era and freaking out at Laurel and Hardy, the one true blessing of my life is that all of my households were extremely straight-laced. My ex and I never drank. Never did drugs. Never even came close to anything resembling a physical altercation. Very proper sexually in public and when the kid is around - no grab ass when people are around, no making jokes or comments about sex even with friends, etc.

This was also the environment I grew up in - my Dad had his Miller Lite, but that was it. My siblings and I went to Catholic schools, and Sophia went to Catholic schools for 15 straight years, from Pre-K to her first year of college. Outwardly, we were best defined as “staid”. And it wasn’t because we preached abstinence or whatever - lord knows Dad wasn’t religious - traditional vices and violence just was not a part of our lives.

With that being said…

Sophia’s media environment was just like mine - while still a child, the parents had large control over TV/films/etc because we were the ones who made the decisions as to what to watch.

However, we watched plenty of movies that probably weren’t ‘appropriate’ for her age - she fell in love with LOTR at the age of six when TNT had one of their first marathons, one of our favorite mutual viewing experiences was War of the Worlds (called “the scary monster alien robot movie” (SMARM) by Sophia) at the age of 8, etc. (BTW, we loved TNT’s editing. I put on ID4 on DVD and was shocked by all the swearing, lol, because I had watched it too many times on TNT w/ Sophia.)

When she got her first phone and data plan, sometime around the age of 12, effectively exposing her to the entirety of the internet, good and bad… we did nothing. No parent blocks, no warnings about inappropriate content, nothing. I, quite frankly, was not going to spend hours of my life watching my phone watching my kid watch her phone. I had friends and acquaintances do this and all it did, imho, was waste their time.

I thought about it, and just decided that if the previous 12 years hadn’t sunk in the moral and family lessons, putting her in an information bubble that would inevitably pop between the ages of 18-21 would actually lead to greater problems down the road. So… let her at the world and then see what happens, and react appropriately if need be.

And to your point, @Spice_Weasel, none of it… none of it… turned her away from the example set by her environment. Lol, her friends were a far worse influence, and even then they weren’t that damaging because Sophia, fortunately, has an extremely strong sense of self. But watching The Human Centipede at the age of 15 didn’t turn her into a freak, it just made her comment “that was the dumbest movie I have ever seen.”

Regardless: If the impulses or the examples of being a “bad person” are not inherent in the child or their environment, in my limited experience with both my siblings and my child (not too sure how the sibs handled media consumption, tbh), watching ‘inappropriate’ movies is not going to, in and of themselves, lead a child down a darker path than if they had not watched the movie.

Yep. Better to let the kids acclimate to media and internet when the parents are around to explain and guide them, than when they’re out of the nest.