- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

If you have recently watched an R-rated movie in a theater say, "Red Dragon" and noticed someone in the audience whose feet didn't touch the floor, you might have thought to yourself: What can those parents be thinking, exposing their children to this? Matters aren't so clear when it comes to PG-rated movies, where parental guidance is suggested.
The runaway success of all things Harry Potter is a prime example of the ambiguity parents must evaluate when it comes to movies.
The series of books by J.K. Rowling and the second film based on the series, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," which opened Friday, depict an often violent fantasy world of witches, wizards and creepy disembodied voices.
Director Chris Columbus defends his new film's frights as a consequence of sticking to the source material.
"I wanted to be faithful to the book, but in being faithful, the book gets darker, edgier, a little scarier," Mr. Columbus says of the film, rated PG.
He screened a rough cut of the film a few weeks ago in Chicago to a crowd of 400, about half of whom were children. When he asked if the audience thought it was too scary, not one hand shot up.
"Kids are not going to admit to being scared," Mr. Columbus says but he did show the film to his 5-year-old daughter.
"She sat there the whole two and a half hours and didn't move. I said, 'Was it too scary,' and she said, 'No.' And she didn't wake up that night [with nightmares]. Granted, she had been to the set a couple of times."
When it comes to letting a child see a particular film, "You have to know your kids," he says.
Laura Pippins, a 43-year-old mother from South Riding, Va., isn't letting news of a darker Harry Potter film squelch her son's plans to see the movie.
Six-year-old Trevor Pippins began reading Harry Potter books at school. Now mother and son read the books before he goes to bed.
Mrs. Pippins isn't surprised that the new film is scarier than its predecessor, but she doubts it can match the chills of the source material.
"To me, the book is scary because of your imagination," says Mrs. Pippins, who will watch the film with her son to make sure nothing is too troubling for him.
She says knowing "Chamber of Secrets" contains darker passages, combined with the PG rating affixed to it, should be all the information parents need.
"They've already kind of warned us," Mrs. Pippins says. "It's up to us to take that chance. If anybody read the book, it is darker."
That said, she adds that she never can be completely sure what might frighten young Trevor.
"Certain things scare him, but it's not always easy to pinpoint what they may be," Mrs. Pippins says. "Some of the things on the 'Power Rangers' are scarier than things [in] Harry Potter."
Barbara Waldman of Centreville does her homework when it comes to what movies her two children can see.
"They are scared of scary movies," Mrs. Waldman says of Rebecca, 9 and Jason, 6.
Mrs. Waldman, 37, reads film reviews and keeps her children away from PG-13 films. She has no plans to take her children to see Harry Potter's latest exploits on the screen.
"It's a dark fantasy with things in it that are scary to the characters in the movie," she says. "In the movie theater especially, it's very enveloping. It's too much sensory stuff for them."
She wouldn't stop other children from seeing the film, though.
"I think it's [best] left to the parents' discretion. If their children can handle it, it's fair game" Mrs. Waldman says.
That kind of individualized discernment is exactly what parents should strive for, says Joanne Cantor, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the psychological effects of such mass media as movies and television, focusing especially on their effect on children.
Many parents don't know what scares their children, and they overestimate how much adult-targeted entertainment their children are ready to handle, she suggests.
No matter how much the federal government and interest groups pressure studios to stop marketing inappropriate movies to children, or theaters to enforce rating restrictions, parents are free to bring their children to movies that may not be appropriate for them.
Things have been improving for parents who diligently try to shield their youngsters from the coarser side of cinema, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
After the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, in which 12 students and a teacher were killed by two teenagers, mass-media marketing of movies, music and video games in particular became a serious concern.
In September 2000, the FTC issued a report that charged the self-regulation system of the motion picture, music and video-game industries had broken down.
They "routinely target advertising and marketing for violent entertainment products directly to children," said Robert Pitofsky, then-chairman of the FTC.
There was better news in a follow-up report released in April 2001. Though the music and video-game industries had made minimal to no progress, movie studios had improved markedly, the report said.
In testimony before a panel of the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Peeler, an FTC official, said: "The commission found that the motion picture industry had made some positive changes to its advertising practices. Specifically, the commission found virtually no advertisements for R-rated movies in the popular teen magazines reviewed."
"However," Mr. Peeler continued, "ads for R-rated movies still appeared on the television programs most popular with teens, and the rating reasons in ads were usually small, fleeting or inconspicuously placed."
If children are enticed by such ads, parents can't rely on theaters to keep their youngsters from seeing R-rated movies. Though some theaters have been more stringent in enforcing the R-rating restriction which requires anyone under 17 years old to be accompanied by a parent or guardian since the Columbine massacre, progress has been spotty.
"I think it varies from theater to theater whether they really have clamped down," Mrs. Cantor says in a phone interview.
Her book "Mommy, I'm Scared" is a guide for parents looking for ways to protect their children from such effects.
Mrs. Cantor says movies "leave indelible memories" on children, often having a "devastating" effect.
The primary reason: "Young children view the world differently than adults. They don't know the difference between fantasy and reality," she says.
Manifestations of psychological damage can be both short- and long-term, Mrs. Cantor says, adding that they can linger throughout a person's adult years.
"My research shows that nightmares can last for weeks and months" and even "recur years later," she says. "There are adults who say, 'I wish I hadn't seen 'Jaws' when I was 5 now I can't swim in any body of water.'"
Even G-rated movies (for general audiences) became increasingly violent during the 1990s, according to a 2000 study by Fumie Yakota and Kimberly M. Thompson that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"A G rating does not automatically signify a level of violence acceptable for very young viewers," they wrote.
Mrs. Cantor says children may become attached to seemingly unobjectionable animated characters such as Simba, who becomes an orphan in the popular Disney film "The Lion King."
"Parents need to decide whether their kids are ready for those kinds of themes," Mrs. Cantor says.
She points out that the movie-theater environment is much harder for parents to control.
"If you're at a movie theater, you're much more likely to stay there," she says, whereas you can turn off a TV at home. "So the answer is more parent education."
Parents need to be cognizant of the severe, long-term effects that exposure to inappropriate entertainment can have on children, she says.
Mrs. Cantor recommends Web sites such as MovieMom.com, which provides detailed information that helps parents decide what is appropriate for their children.

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