Both "The Lego Movie" and "Scarface" have torture, explosions, and guns. But while one mixes in humor, animation, and empathy, the other glamorizes weapons and revenge and includes sexual violence. This difference is important. Research shows that a steady diet of movies portraying relatable, rewarded, realistic violence may have a long-term impact on viewers' ideas about the necessity of violence and aggression.
But "The Lego Movie" isn't off the hook. When your kid clonks another kid over the head in imitation of a cartoon character, you're witnessing mimicry, or short-term impact — another effect of viewing violence.
Neither short-term nor long-term impact has been shown to cause a person to become violent. In other words, a violent movie all by itself will not make your kid violent. It's the cumulative effect of high exposure to all media violence, combined with other serious risk factors, that may cause a person to be aggressive or violent. Also, the way violence is perceived depends on the kid and his or her age, unique sensitivities, individual temperament, interest in what he or she's watching, and even home and social environment.
As a parent, it's best to pay attention to your kids' behavior after watching violent movies and ask questions to determine how they interpret what they've seen. Start with open-ended questions such as, "How do you feel after watching that?" and "Could the characters have handled that situation differently?"
Here are some different types of media violence to watch out for:
Cartoon violence. Though you may think anything animated is no big deal, cartoon violence can affect kids. Boys and girls younger than about 7 can have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality and may interpret a violent act as "real." And little kids are highly likely to imitate what they see.
Psychological and emotional violence. Kids' emotional maturity develops in the tween years. Before that, they may not understand emotional violence. Scenes with torture, bullying, explosive anger, coercion, and so on are likely to confuse and scare them.
Sexual violence. Viewing a lot of sexual violence — which is usually depicted as men overpowering women — may lead to increased acceptance of violence toward women and the idea that women enjoy sexual abuse. Women who view a lot of sexual violence may develop low self-esteem and have poor relationships. It's a particularly poor choice for kids, who may be more affected since their sexual patterns are not yet set.
Consequence-free or well-rewarded violence. When viewers believe that violence is justified, or when it's rewarded (or at least not punished), they may have aggressive thoughts — especially in the long run.
Violence perceived as realistic. Viewers who believe a movie's violence "tells it like it really is" and who identify with the perpetrator may be stimulated toward violent behavior over time. Until they hit the teen years, kids will simply be frightened by realistic-looking violence.
Parody violence. Movies that deliberately spoof violence, such as "Ghostbusters," can be a bit tricky. Kids' ability to detect sarcasm and irony develops early in the tween years, but many kids are quite literal. Key into how your kid is interpreting the action, and point out the sometimes subtle hallmarks of parody violence (for example, characters' violent acts tend to backfire, the smug hero gets taken down a notch, and guns shoot a flag that says "Bang").