In the late 1970s, when Movieguide editor-in-chief Ted Baehr was director of the TV Center at City University of New York, he was immersed in studies of how the mass media influence children at different stages of cognitive development. Now a widely quoted media critic, Baehr continues to be concerned for the impact of movies on children.

Baehr, who grew up as the child of two Hollywood actors, is also concerned about the transformation of the entertainment culture from within. He has just completed writing So You Want to Be in Pictures?, which he told CT editor David Neff contains "a positive portrait of a lot of good people doing a lot of good things in Hollywood." The book will be published in January by Broadman & Holman.

In September the Rand Corporation released a study that showed teens who view the most sexually related material on television are twice as likely to engage in intercourse as those who watch the least. What do you make of it?

It's not surprising for people who have read the studies of the influence of media on everything from buying products to violence. Of course, not every youth has a propensity to copy sexual activity, although sexual scripts of behavior seem to be the most likely to be copied.

The rising concern today is not because there's a return to Victorian prudishness, but because of the increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Another study showed that 50 percent of sexually active kids have a sexually transmitted disease by the time they're 24 or 25 years old.

And how does the incidence of watching more sex-oriented scenes relate to the difference between cable programming and traditional broadcast?

Earlier studies point out that suggestion, innuendo, and jokes are as provocative, if not more so, than explicit sex. Dr. Victor Cline found that prisoners who had committed sex crimes were turned off by explicit depictions of sex, and I would imagine the same is true of youth. They wanted innuendo, jokes, and the "come hither" that suggests the other person wanted the sex. For susceptible kids in the adolescent stage of cognitive development, titillation is actually a much more powerful draw than the overt stuff that everybody gets so angry about.

Physically, teens are maturing sexually. How does this relate to their cognitive development?

Although teens have reached the point where they've got their raging hormones and adult physical attributes, their brain development and cognitive development do not end until their late 20s.

Teens experience an extreme change in their biology while they have not yet learned to worry about the other person's concerns. Male teenagers especially think the other person wants what they want. They'll often take advantage of the other person because of that. The older you get, the more likely you are to respect and understand the other person's position.

Article continues below

When I had teenagers at home, I was more worried about the subtle messages they would pick up from PG-13 movies than about some of the more explicit images they might see in some R movies.

The rating system does not help at all in this regard because, first, the rating system has refused to have standards; second, it refuses to incorporate a lot of what we know about child psychology; and third, what you really need is responsibility and not ratings. Responsibility means that the old motion picture code, which people laugh at, said you couldn't show sex or violence in such a way that kids would want to emulate it. That did not mean that you couldn't have sex or violence-it was broadly interpreted in some cases-but it was certainly better than what we have now.

Why should adults try to see media through children's eyes?

Media affect children in ways completely different from adults. When one parent was home with the children all the time, you would intuit this. But now you have to look at the thousands of cognitive learning studies and other research.

In each period children have unique differences. For instance, Professor Joanne Cantor of the University of Wisconsin has shown that if you're in the imagination stage (ages 2-7), you can look at a movie like The Hulk or Jaws, and you can be irreparably afraid. She interviewed graduating seniors at the University of Wisconsin. Ninety percent of them said they were scared of some movie they saw during that period of their childhood. However, as soon as they turned 7 or 8 and entered the next stage of development, if they saw the same movie, they'd say, Hey, this is just a rubber shark!

Some critics turn up their noses at Movieguide's counting obscene words or sexual references in a movie. But cognitive development studies make it seem important for parents to know those numbers.

Some people say you shouldn't do this form of criticism. But the University of California at Santa Barbara also does quantitative criticism. They believe that the more violence or the more obscene language there is for kids to copy, the more likely they will become active scripts of behavior. At UCLA, on the other hand, they make the point that it's contextual. Good criticism, I believe, is a little bit of both.

Article continues below

The violence in movies like Amistad and Schindler's List and The Passion of the Christ is completely different. It's not the type of violence that people would be attracted to emulating.

A 5-year-old boy said to me, "You know what I like about the movies? The weapons."

There are differences between girls and boys. Girls have much less susceptibility to the violence in movies. They tend to be frightened by it. It's usually little boys with bright minds and hearts and with ADD who are most affected by the violence they see.

People ask, If kids pick up scripts of behavior from Kill Bill II, why isn't society more violent? Different people have different propensities. About 7 percent to 11 percent might want to copy violence. Eighty-seven percent of the kids do not want to copy violence. Probably a third of the kids are desensitized to it, and maybe a third are scared of it. About 30 percent are susceptible to the sex they see. And interestingly enough, 60 percent would be susceptible to the alcohol and the smoking.

I debated a very intelligent friend of mine on ABC. She was saying that it just doesn't matter. But I said, If violence only affects 7 percent to 11 percent, that's significant. We need to have enough compassion to say if media affect kids negatively, we need to care enough to help kids not be negatively affected.

In your book The Media-Wise Family, you say that young children don't really understand a dramatic story with a moral ending. What about Christian videos that are designed to deliver a moral message to small children?

I'm glad Christians are producing things for that age group because the world does the same thing. But it's the least-effective way of teaching anybody moral values.

Kids start to pick up on the moral around the middle of the imagination stage, which is 5 to 7. For younger kids, it's a problem of following the story line. Pediatricians and child psychologists say that children under 3 should not be watching TV. They're better off if they're doing hand-eye coordination and crawling around the floor and hugging mom.

The other day while driving I had to swerve to avoid hitting somebody who was changing lanes while watching a dvd player on her dashboard. How can we convince people that life is not really about entertainment?

There are several steps to media wisdom. First, learn to understand the influence of the media in your life. Second, understand how people look at the media at different stages of development. Third, understand how the media work-what makes movies different from books, and so forth. Fourth, learn what your deeply held beliefs and values are and how they apply to what you're watching. Once you start engaging the media and understanding the influence of the media, then you tame the beast.

Article continues below
Ages & Stages for Media-Wise Families

The Imagination Stage - ages 2 to 7*
Has a very active imagination, often confusing fact and fiction. Has difficulty integrating the elements of a story and drawing a conclusion. Protect from frightening or mesmerizing images.

The Concrete Operational Stage - ages 7 to 11
Judges characters by their attractiveness and by their motives. Is more likely to imitate movie violence if it goes unpunished or is presented as necessary.

The Reflection Stage - ages 12 to 15
Abstract thought gains strength. Teach early teens to analyze plot, character, setting, and to draw out and evaluate a movie's premise. Still unable to foresee the consequences of their actions. May imitate characters' behavior.

The Relationship Stage - later teens
Accepts that others are different. Learns to relate to others by accepting their differences. Conceptualizes the consequences of actions and takes steps to reduce risks. Teach them to recognize the ways media try to manipulate them.

*All ages are approximate. Adapted from The Media-Wise Family by Ted Baehr (Chariot Victor, 1998).

Related Elsewhere:

Ted Baehr's Movieguide posts movie reviews, news, and other media information.

Christianity Today Movies has reviews, news, a critic's roundup, interviews, and commentaries.

Our television and music pages have other media news.

Our sister publication, Christian Parenting Today has other articles on kids and media including the column "Oodles of Stuff," with movie recommendations for kids.

Other articles about kids and movies include:

Should Kids See The Passion? | We think the R rating is right on the money. Parents should see it first, then decide. (March 04, 2004)
Poster Boy for Postmodernism | Strohmeyer told police he strangled the little girl by twisting her neck the way he had seen in movies. (Nov. 16, 1998)

The American Family Association offers action alerts on television programs and commercials. The Dove Foundation reviews television movies. Christian Spotlight and Parents Television Council rate shows based on their family-appropriateness. Focus on the Family's Plugged In gives advice and guidance on movies, music, and television.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.