Children are Harmed When Trusted Adults Show Films Which Contain Violence Intended to Thrill the Viewer
Graphic violence in a film, when it is intended to produce an adrenaline rush in the audience, desensitizes the viewer not only to the victim’s pain but also to the debasement of the perpetrator. In many instances, these films glorify violence and the persons who commit it.
When parents or teachers bring violent films into the home or the classroom, they encourage the viewing of brutality for entertainment and implicitly endorse the acceptance and celebration of savagery. Significantly, adults who propose the viewing of graphically brutal films also lose the opportunity to show by example that in all but the most extreme cases, the use of violence, even viewing it for pleasure, is intolerable. This loss of moral stature by trusted adults is detrimental to the children they seek to raise or teach.
Violence in film has no intrinsic artistic value. Movie producers use it to attract the audience of 18 to 35 year old males, the demographic group most likely to purchase theater tickets. It’s often obvious that screenwriters or directors have had a failure of inspiration or craft and have decided to punch up their flagging effort with heavy doses of gore.
When is Violence in a Film Not Harmful?
Fighting, war, injury and death are part of life. Not all films that include them should be shunned. Films that do not show blood and guts and don’t have characters who revel in the cruelty of their actions appear to have no detrimental effect on the viewer.
In some extraordinary cases, even graphic brutality in a film is justified. Schindler’s List shows the horror of genocide, using brutality to create the outrage essential to the message of the film. The perpetrators in Schindler’s List are shown to be in thrall to evil. In Gandhi, a few short scenes of killing and maiming are contrasted with the saintliness of the Mahatma and the non-violence of his followers. It is difficult to say that there was any other way to transmit the full message of these films without the violent scenes.
The message does not always justify showing graphic brutality to children. The terror in Saving Private Ryan obviously advances the message of the film, but the scene in which a German soldier slowly and tenderly kills a young American GI haunts even adults. Children should not be subjected to this. On the other hand, the bloody scenes in the war films Glory and A Midnight Clear, do not show the perpetrators reveling in their actions, are essential to the important messages of the films, and are not so horrendous that they will give nightmares when shown to children of an appropriate age.
Whether the violence in a film disqualifies it from being shown to children is a matter of judgment. In making this judgment, we suggest that the adult first determine that: 1) the violence does not appear to have been included in the film for the shock or thrill of the violence itself; 2) the plot and theme of the film are significantly advanced by the violence; 3) the violence is shown to be the wrong choice or the option of last resort; 4) the story told by the film is sufficiently important to subject children to the desensitizing effects of the brutality shown; 5) the film is an excellent method for teaching the information contained in the film; 6) the children who will be shown the film are of a sufficient age that the violence will not scare them or give them nightmares; and 7) the adult showing the film does not frequently suggest violent films to his or her charges . Only if each of these criteria are clearly met, should the film should be shown to children.
www.TeachWithMovies.org Demonstrates That Films Can Be Used to Engage and Teach
Children Without Accepting Lowest Common Denominator: Brutality
We occasionally get e-mails from teachers and parents who try to justify showing films with unnecessarily graphic (we call it “pornographic”) violence. They point to the educational and artistic strengths of the films, saying, “We don’t want to lose the benefits that can come from this, especially since the kids are so fascinated by the violence. We can go there with them and use it to keep their interest.” Our response is that like physicians, teachers, and parents should first do no harm. Children are harmed when trusted adults tell them by word or by example that viewing the infliction of pain as entertainment is acceptable. What do children learn when parents or teachers show them films which glorify characters who demean themselves by committing violence? Certainly, nothing good about life and nothing exemplary about the trusted “adult.”
Showing a violent film is the easy way out. Parents and teachers should use their creativity to find other ways to teach the same lessons. www.TeachWithMovies.org lists more than 425 films covering many aspects of history, cultural heritage, and social-emotional learning (SEL). Few of the recommended movies contain any graphic violence. None contain violence intended to thrill the audience. In each film, the violence has met the standards described above. The collection of films recommended by www.TeachWithMovies.org demonstrates that films can be used to engage and teach children without condoning savagery.
Our society suffers from a degradation of standards and an increase in violence. These trends will only be reversed when adults maintain standards for children and demonstrate by their actions that violence is unacceptable. Parents and teachers need to encourage higher order thinking, which explores the complexity and subtlety of human behavior. Films which use violence to thrill young audiences will not do this.
Toward New Definitions of Obscenity and Pornography
At home and in school, parents and teachers should redefine the terms “obscenity” and “pornography” to include violence as well as sex without love. Films with unnecessary brutality placed there for the thrill should simply not be shown by adults to children.
James Frieden and Deborah W. Elliott