Children's Movies Are Rife With Murder, Says Science

Actress Mariska Hargitay and her son. The kid's film "Finding Nemo" starts with a "grisly death scene,” says an scientific analysis of children's movies. Mark Avery / Reuters

You might expect that children's movies would be less violent than those geared toward adults. But you'd be wrong.

"Just because a film has a cute clown fish or a singing mermaid or baby deer in it, doesn't mean that there won't be murder," says Ian Colman, a mental health epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa.

Colman thought it'd be interesting to compare violence in films aimed at kids and grown-ups, after a colleague of his said that he may want to skip over the first five minutes of Finding Nemo while watching with his kids, since it includes a "grisly death scene," he says.

So he and a few other researchers compared the 45 top-grossing children's movies of all time to the top-grossing dramas, which are aimed at adults, and measured how many murders and violent acts took place.

They skipped action movies because these "are often also marketed to, and viewed by, young children," Colman and colleagues wrote in the study. "The comparison group nevertheless included a range of subgenres, including horror (for example, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, What Lies Beneath) and thriller (for instance, Pulp Fiction, The Departed, Black Swan)."

They found that in children's films versus those aimed toward adults, deaths amongst major characters were 2.5 times more common, and 2.8 times more likely to be murders, says Colman. Movie characters that were parents fared particularly badly—they were five times more likely to die in children's films.

The study is a part of the British Medical Journal's Christmas edition, which is known for its whimsical content; last year, for example, studies found therein included a treatise on how much James Bond drank and the heritability of magic in Harry Potter.

But in this case, the findings do seem to have some real-world significance. It may be best for parents to watch movies with their kids, so that if issues come up, they can be talked about, Colman says.

"We shouldn't just let kids watch the movies, but be there to help them process the information," says Tracie Afifi, an epidemiologist at the University of Manitoba who wasn't involved in the study.