Influencing Kids: The Good and Bad in Books and Movies

During my ventures into YA territory to help my kids find good books, I noticed how many obscenities, profanities, and sexual situations are present in bestselling books marketed to the age 12+ demographic.

So when I read this article in TIME magazine, about how many YA novels would be rated R if they were movies instead of books, it was gratifying to see I was not alone in my concern:

Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne and her colleagues analyzed profanity use in 40 teen novels on the New York Times’ best-seller list of children’s books published in 2008. All the books reviewed targeted children age 9 or older. . .The researchers found that on average, teen novels contain 38 instances of profanity, which translates to nearly seven curse words per hour of reading. Of the 40 books in the study, 88% contained at least one “bad word.”

Movies and books can influence kids for good and bad, so who is responsible for making sure they are good?

The "R" rating is reserved for movies that are restricted—a person under 17 must have an accompanying parent or adult guardian. A "PG-13" rating means that parents are strongly cautioned, because "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13."

It's very clear that many elements which would restrict young movie-goers are abundant in YA fiction, but books are not marked with ratings to warn parents about content.

Why do we treat content in books and movies differently?

So let’s be honest—adults often do not pay attention to what kids are reading, probably because reading is associated with knowledge and virtue. We are thrilled to find our kids reading instead of watching TV or playing video games.

At the same time, we accept that television and movies need some sort of filtering, and we depend on the MPAA rating system to let us know when we need to stop and consider the content. The rating system for books is basically whether or not books are shelved in the children’s or YA section. We just assume that these books are age appropriate. It’s not surprising that adult content in YA fiction can easily sneak past parents.

But wait, there’s more!

It isn't just the presence of foul language and sexual situations in YA that is problematic, but the characters doing these things are, according the the Time magazine article, often "young, rich, attractive, and of high social status."

I think most would agree that events and characters in books and movies don’t cause bad behavior, but they certainly have the potential to influence.

Characters need to have flaws and engage in conflict for a story to be interesting and believable. But when bad behavior is made tantalizing by gorgeous actors portraying charming, wealthy, popular characters, the deck against our kids is being unfairly stacked. And what about consequences? How often do we see the real consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, frequent unprotected sex, and illegal acts? It’s even worse if a child lacks involved parents who take time to help their children discern the good and bad on the page and or the screen.

Let me be clear—I'm not advocating for any kind of systematic censorship here. My point is that authors and filmmakers who market to children and families need to accept that they have a responsibility to their audience.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

Yes, dear story creators, it's a responsibility. Deal with it. Every human being bears the responsibility of caring for the best interests of their fellow man. You don’t get to make a cartoon littered with dirty jokes and then blame parents for not being better at controlling what their kids watch. When young girls mimic the characters they admire by putting themselves at risk for sexual assault or victimization by an older man, you’ve contributed to their downfall.

We keep saying that no one is more vulnerable and in need of guidance in our society than our children. Do we really believe it?

Publishing books and filmmaking should never be reduced to making a name or making a buck. Children quite naturally enter into the stories they see and read, and internalize messages and themes during their formative years. Books can shape us in ways that we often don't understand or even realize until we are much older.

 What does Meg Ryan’s character say about books in You’ve Got Mail?

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

So what’s the solution?

While it may be true-to-form for a character to be involved in immoral, unethical, or illegal conduct, is there a way to deal with their actions responsibly?

Yes. And it’s as simple as allowing characters to experience the consequences of the choices they make, whether those acts are noble or criminal.

Sure—sometimes the bad guy doesn't get caught, and sometimes the innocent suffer. But stories aimed at kids do not need to encourage them to admire the selfish, cruel, or vulgar behavior of the protagonists or antagonists.

This doesn't mean that authors must create cardboard characters with good guys wearing white hats and kissing puppies, or bad guys tricked out in black leather pants and tattooed with goat heads. Good guys can be flawed, and bad guys can be likable. But in theme and tone, an author influences and directs the reader to certain conclusions, just as the screenwriter, director, and actors are trying to invoke an emotional response.

It’s on all of us to be more thoughtful about creating stories, to take the time to read reviews and pre-read books; to read with and to our kids, and talk about what it means to be honest, courageous, compassionate, repentant, forgiving.

Is this a lot of work? Yes, it can be. But it's essential, and the bottom line is—you make the time for the things that are important. Ensuring your children have a healthy view of the world and their place in it is at the top of the Adult Responsibility Checklist. And that certainly includes people who write books and make movies.

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