Kids can handle sex and violence in film, classifiers say

The council in charge of rating films believes that children can decipher what’s real and what’s not

Films receive lower classifications in Denmark than they do in other countries on the basis that children are able to distinguish between reality and fiction, claims Medierådet for Børn og Unge (the Danish Media Council for Children and Young People). The council contends that children can “manage a good thrill” – and what is often deemed harmful to young viewers doesn’t affect them as much as expected.

“The Media Council considers purely what is harmful for a child to view,” Jan Fogt, the head of the council, told The Copenhagen Post. “And to a certain extent, ‘harm’ can be dependent on cultural elements.”

Fogt reasoned that cultural context may play a role in what a child can handle in the media – and that this context also influences which films the council considers appropriate for children.

“We know that for very small children, very basic elements of film can be harmful,” Fogt reasoned. “But I think that as a child grows, they become more dependent on cultural context as a means of decoding and understanding what is on the screen in front of them.”

The contrast in classification between countries can occasionally be so stark that films reserved only for teenagers and above in the US and UK are deemed suitable for young children in Denmark. The 2009 film ‘In the Loop’, for example, was rated a 15 in the UK for its aggressive profanity and hostility between characters. Similarly, the recently released ‘The Sessions’ received a 15 in the UK and was rated R (suitable for over-17s only) in the US for graphic nudity and sexual activity – yet both films were deemed suitable for three-year-olds in Denmark.

Fogt explained that often the lax classifications come down to context and the probability of whether a child will identify with the subject matter.

“Obviously if physical violence is combined with a psychological element so that you really experience the emotional suffering with the character, this plays a role in how we classify,” Fogt explained. “With sexual depictions, we usually look at the environment: is it humorous and respectful, or is it derogatory and linked to abuse?”

“But it’s also about how much a film raises the fear that ‘this could happen to me’,” he went on. “How does a child identify with the characters?”

The council’s research suggests that children can contextualise and distinguish fiction from reality from an early age, he said. And as with ‘In the Loop’ or ‘The Sessions’, if they aren’t old enough to differentiate, they usually aren’t yet able to understand those elements anyway.

“Often there are situations between employers or two adults about horrible things like financial stability or the basis of life for a family,” he said. “In our experience, a child of five won’t understand it at all. Certain elements will pass over children’s heads completely.”

While Fogt agreed that onscreen aggression could lead to children exhibiting similar behaviour in the short term, he said that the council found it difficult to base its classifications on the idea that this would cause actual imitation on a larger scale.

This sentiment, however, isn’t echoed by international classifiers. David Cooke, the head of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), for example, has said that the BBFC considers child protection to be its principal occupation.

“If we didn’t do what we do, children on quite a large scale would be having experiences of the kind that aren’t age-appropriate,” Cooke told the British newspaper the Guardian. “I think most people would see that as a pretty bad result.”

That concern echoes beyond film classifiers as well. A 2012 report from the International Society for Research on Aggression, which compiled research from various studies on media influence, suggested that despite various schools of thought, exposure to violence has similar effects across the globe.

“The effects of media violence can be different for different people and can be very subtle, especially when examined over the course of a person’s lifetime,” the report stated. “The effects are remarkably consistent regardless of the type of medium, age, gender, or where the person lives in the world.”

As far as Danish classifiers are concerned, Fogt said that the board couldn’t draw any conclusions. Ultimately, he said, the degree to which a child is affected by a film may be highly dependent on their culture.

“As to whether a typical Danish child views a ‘thrill’ differently than in other countries, that’s a strongly hypothetical and personal experience,” he said. “But it makes sense that we have different classification systems in different countries.”

“If you compare Scandinavia with British or American classifications, you’ll most likely see a very stable pattern where our classifications differ. We have very different cultural contexts.”