What makes movies good or bad for your child’s development
Here’s an expert backed look into how movies can impact a child’s development (in a negative or positive way) and how film in general can affect their perspective.
When it comes to kids and media, there is a lot of talk regarding screen time in general, and how it can have a negative impact on kids. Social media is often highlighted as a problem, however, another large source of screen time for kids that generally precedes social media is film! It is really normal in today’s society for kids to start watching movies from a young age, following the adventures of their favorite princesses and heroes.
However, we need to consider the impact of film on kids. How can movies and film affect the perspective of children, and impact them on a developmental level?
We wanted to get to the bottom of this to help inform our community about what movies their kids may be watching and how this could impact how they develop. So, we dug down into some academic studies and reached out to experts in the field for their input.
To learn more jump to the most relevant section:
You might be thinking, “Why does this matter, as long as I only let my kid watch animated children’s movies then it's fine, right? For example, any animated Disney movie surely has nothing but positive themes that can help my child grow and develop in a positive manner; particularly those that are G-rated!”
It isn’t always the case though. Take a look at 101 Dalmatians (the animated version from 1961).
Brilliant film, given a 98% rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a rather straightforward adventure, focused around rescuing 15 dalmatian puppies where, at the end of the day, all the puppies (plus 86 extra puppies) are saved and live happily ever after (apologies for spoilers!)
There are less visible themes however, or implicit themes that could make this Disney movie less appropriate. For example, from the mindset of a child, a lunatic, sociopathic lady looking to skin hundreds of puppies in order to make a (tacky at best), polka dot dalmatian coat can be rather frightening.
Next to this, the movie also features several characters smoking or drinking alcohol. For example, while less likely to appear to children as a role model, Cruella smoking a long stemmed cigarette and her henchmen drinking wine out of a bottle certainly aren’t shining examples of behaviors we’d like our kids to follow. With that in mind, even Roger, one of the main protagonists and more fit to be a role model, is seen smoking a pipe quite often throughout the movie.
While this may be more fitting to the time period that the movie was released - the 1960s - it could potentially negatively impact how a child internalizes the film.
On the other hand, 101 Dalmatians certainly has themes that could have a very positive impact on children and how they perceive the world around them. For example, it shows the positive values of teamwork and how the dogs persevere and work together to save the puppies.
Check out the video below to see other examples of kids movies that show both positive and negative behaviors
But what does this really mean? And what are the potential positive and/or negative effects of film? Will my child look at the dogs, humans, and puppies working together to succeed and think; cooperation and teamwork is a positive thing and a key to success? OR will they look at multiple characters smoking and think.. “Hmm maybe smoking a pipe or cigarette (or drinking wine from the bottle) is a normal thing that grown ups do.”
For this, we wanted to reach out to the best in the field of child development and psychology, to get an expert idea of what is going on in the mind of children when they watch a movie, why it's important and how this can impact their development.
We got in touch with Jennifer Harriger, a PhD in Developmental Psychology who has previously studied and written about Appearance-related themes in children’s animated movies. She gave us some valuable insight on how children can be impacted by film!
What is the biggest way that films can impact children positively and/or negatively?
Jennifer: Films often provide children with a framework from which to understand the world around them. Often the messages are subtle, but they are also pervasive. Children learn that good triumphs over bad, what it means to be male or female, that beautiful people are typically “good” and “kind,” and that violence is often “necessary” in order to achieve a goal.
And how would you say that the type of impact of films on children differs per age?
Jennifer: By the age of 3, children can absorb messages from adult media. In fact one study found that a large percentage of preschool age children had been exposed to PG-13 or R rated movies. Children learn from media, and their beliefs and value systems are, in part, shaped by the media. Younger children do, however, have a more difficult time deciphering reality from fantasy, and they often struggle to make distinctions between the regular programming and advertisements.
How does the perspective of a child with regard to how they internalise a movie differ from that of an adult?
Jennifer: Children have a more difficult time deciphering reality from fantasy and also lack the skills necessary to critically evaluate the messages presented to them via the media. But to be honest, adults also struggle to critically evaluate the messages as well and are also likely to internalize beliefs from media sources, including movies.
Do you believe children are strongly influenced by the images they watch on screen?
Jennifer: I do. Children identify with and want to emulate the characters that they see on-screen; particularly the characters that they view as attractive, confident, and successful. I think parents and other adults can facilitate conversations with children to ensure that they learn how to critically evaluate the messages that they receive from movies (i.e., How do you think that child felt when the other characters were being so mean to him? What could you do to stand up for him? What did you think about how the princess looked? Is that what most people look like? Is our worth based on what we look like? Should we use weapons or hurt people when we are upset with them?).
Imagine you watched a well known children’s movie: What things could potentially have an affect on the children's development and how can this impact their perspective psychologically going forward?
Jennifer: I do not think that any one movie will have a significant impact on a child’s development. Instead I think that it’s a cumulative effect of many messages from many sources (including movies) that influence a child and his or her perspective. I do believe that movies have the potential to shape children’s beliefs about attractiveness, gender-roles, violence, and success.
To provide you with more insights about children and the impact of movies, we decided to supplement Jennifer’s interview by collecting relevant information from prior research and summarizing it in simple terms. As discussed earlier, movies can have a significant impact on kids. Below you can see some of the positive and negative impacts backed by scientific research.
For more depth into specifics and some of the studies we reviewed, click the dropdown tabs below.
Negative impact of movies on kids
Movies for Toddlers: Should toddlers watch TV? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, watching tv should be discouraged for children younger than 48 months old.
This is based on a few factors, those being:
- A lack of scientific evidence that media use has educational or developmental benefits in children younger than 2 years old.
- Media use has potential negative health and developmental effects in children 2 years and younger.
Parental media use (or background media use) has potential negative effects on children of these ages. (source American Academy of Pediatrics)
What are the negative effects of media and tv on young children Depending on the age of the child, the negative impacts of media and tv exposure can differ. This is because, children of different ages are at different levels of cognitive development, for example, children older than 2 years and those younger than 2 years are at different levels of cognitive development and process information differently. (source American Academy of Pediatrics)
For very young children, such as toddlers who have had less time to learn and develop, it may be more difficult for them to understand the content of movies or television. For example, young children have difficulty differentiating between events on a video and the same information presented by a live person. (sources: American Academy of Pediatrics), Television and Very Young Children)
This being the case, it can certainly be more difficult for them to use film as an educational or developmental tool.
In fact, there are studies that have found that watching movies and tv can have a negative effect on language for children younger than 2 years.
One such study, found that increased tv usage led to a negative impact on infant vocabulary growth. According to the AAP, this and other studies, infant vocabulary growth is directly related to the amount of time parents spend speaking to them, heavy television use in a household can interfere with a child's language development simply because parents likely spend less time talking to the child. (source American Academy of Pediatrics)
Negative impacts on older children
Researchers from Yale University School of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and California Pacific Medical Center reviewed 173 quantitative studies examining the relationship between media exposure and seven health outcomes, the majority of which concerning movies, television, and music, **80% of which found a negative impact of this media on child health. ** (source Media + Child and Adolescent Health: A Systematic Review)
They found strong evidence linking media and negative health outcomes associated with obesity and tobacco use (more than 80% of almost 100 studies showed a statistically significant association between media exposure and tobacco use or obesity.)
According to other studies that the AAP cites, media use has been associated with obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors, and attention issues in preschool- and school-aged children. (source American Academy of Pediatrics)
Positive impact of movies on kids
Since we’ve been focusing primarily on the negative effects of film and tv on children up to this point, let's jump into some positives.
Despite negative film influences, youth can respond to positive film influences, especially with proper guidance and tailored strategies. (Positive Psychology at the Movies for Children, Adolescents and Families Linda Rufer, M.D., F.A.A.P.)
There are many ways that movies can have a positive impact on children: they can be educational, help develop beneficial character traits, as well as promoting positive social interactions.
Throughout education, some movies are often used as a supplement for course material. Certainly movies are useful as an educational aide, helping to pique a student's interest in a topic, and in some cases provide educational information. This is more often seen used with historical content, (granted the efficacy of this relies on the movies and whether they are historically accurate). (source: Positive Psychology at the Movies for Children, Adolescents and Families Linda Rufer, M.D., F.A.A.P.)
Watching films can also have a positive impact on language learning. The focus in language learning is in the process of communicating. For that reason, giving learners more opportunities to hear and interpret this process can help support their language development. Studies have found that language is acquired by receiving comprehensible input, which creates more learning opportunities. In this respect, as films provide a wide variety of meaningful, comprehensible input, they can become necessary tools in language learning. (source: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice, The use of Films in Language Learning.)
Next to the more academic geared educational impacts, there are also plenty of positive psychological effects that movies can have on children.
The power of the narrative stimulates emotions, and these emotional responses influence learning and behavior. Immersion into a character in a movie increases empathy, and allows the viewer to live the experiences of the character without having to experience the real-life consequences. (source: Positive Psychology at the Movies for Children, Adolescents and Families Linda Rufer, M.D., F.A.A.P.)
Seeing altruistic or prosocial behavior in a movie helps motivate people to do this themselves and is associated with an increase in such behaviors by watchers.
A study by Mares and Woodward found that prosocial effects of audiovisual media can be potentially even more impactful than the negative effects of exposure to violent content, because existing social norms favor prosocial behavior.
Depending on the age of your child there can be many positive and negative impacts that film can have, basically making it a catch 22. However, Jennifer summed it up nicely with the answer to her last question, saying,
“I do not think that any one movie will have a significant impact on a child’s development. Instead I think that it’s a cumulative effect of many messages from many sources (including movies) that influence a child and his or her perspective. I do believe that movies have the potential to shape children’s beliefs about attractiveness, gender-roles, violence, and success.”
She also provided really valuable advice, stating, because children are strongly influenced by the images they watch on screen,
“parents and other adults can facilitate conversations with children to ensure that they learn how to critically evaluate the messages that they receive from movies”.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also provides beneficial, research-based recommendations, which we’ve summed up in the graphic below.
All in all, there is no right or wrong answer. However, if you are concerned about your child learning how to more critically evaluate media, making sure to discuss movies seems to be a common theme among the research and expert suggestions. To help you with this, we’ve used their advice to help formulate a movie discussion guide!