I’m taking my 8-year-old son to see The Hunger Games. Granted, we’d already crossed the bridge into PG-13 movies with Clash of the Titans, so there was never much doubt. But I imagine many parents are grappling with the decision about whether to take their kids to see the long-awaited movie adaptation of the beloved but dark and violent novel by Suzanne Collins. Although originally marketed for a young-adult audience, any book as successful as this one has naturally grabbed the attention of much younger kids as well, and so will the movie.
For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games follows the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl living in a futuristic dystopia named Panem who volunteers to take her sister’s place in an annual battle in which 24 teens fight to the death. The book raises issues of social equality, loyalty, oppression and the complexity of moral choices, but concerns about it naturally focus on its violence. In a much circulated Wall Street Journal article last year decrying how dark children’s literature had become, Meghan Cox Gurdon called The Hunger Games “hyper-violent” and concluded, “No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children’s lives.”
A big assumption among detractors is that children can’t distinguish between reality and fiction and that they will mimic what they see, whether violence or sex. But social science increasingly indicates that this line of thinking is incorrect. Recent research has showed that kids who watch more violent television or play more violent video games don’t become any more violent or aggressive than other kids. Similarly, a study by Laurence Steinberg and Kathryn Monahan published in Developmental Psychology suggests that, with other factors rigorously controlled, exposure to television and movies with scenes of sexual intercourse, and music with sexually explicit lyrics, does not predict later sexual behavior in teens.
The human brain treats fictional media differently from real-life events. We seem to have a kind of “fiction detector” that allows us to put information from fictional sources in a different category and to ignore any behavioral messages it might be sending us. These abilities develop across childhood, but research shows that children have this capability from a very early age. In a classic study of this phenomenon published in 2006, Jacqueline Woolley and Jennifer Van Reet found that children as young as 3 to 5 use context to judge whether something is real or not, and treat fantasy and real information differently. Yes, young children believe in fantasy characters such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but that’s because their parents tell them these characters are real, and kids respect adults’ authority. Advertising actually has much more influence on behavior than fictional media because advertisers go to great lengths to circumvent these fiction detectors, whereas books and movies don’t bother.
Kids then process this fictional media by channeling it into play, further demonstrating their understanding of the distinction. Last week, I happened to see some teen boys and girls in the park wearing The Hunger Games T-shirts and gleefully swatting each other with foam swords, making alliances and generally having a grand time. These kids aren’t going to move on to real blades because they fundamentally understand the difference between their play and real violence, and the book and real life. Nor is my son going to start bullying other kids for food because of the movie.
Parents are free, of course, to use their moral compass to decide which media is appropriate for their families, but some of my own research suggests that the best option is for parents to consume violent-themed entertainment alongside their children rather than to either shield kids from it or leave them on their own. Parental input seems to help children understand the context of aggression and violence and better prepare them for how to address it in their own lives. Aggression is part of the human condition, something most kids experience shortly after they age out of Baby Einstein. But parents can be assured that The Hunger Games is not going to harm their child. So, game on. May the odds be ever in your favor!