Last week, I watched King of Kotha in a theatre. It’s a typical gangster film, nothing unusual about it. Nearly every scene had the characters drinking alcohol, smoking, doing drugs and hurting each other. There were repeated stabbings, loud gunshots, daggers dripping blood.
It was hard to sit through, and next to me was a little girl who could not have been older than eight or nine. She was curled up in a seat too big for her. During some scenes, she flinched and hid her face in her elbow; during others, she was at the edge of the seat, wide-eyed. The man she had come with, maybe her father or an uncle, was engrossed in the film, impervious to the child’s plight.
This is not the first unbearably violent movie to get a U/A certificate from the censor board this year. The Rajnikanth-starrer Jailer did too, and was watched by scores of families with little children in packed theatres across India. As did the Vadivelu-Fahadh Faasil-starrer Mamannan, which had multiple drawn-out scenes depicting cruelty towards animals and children.
It is not unusual for star vehicles to get a U or U/A certificate. The star beats dozens of people to a pulp with no consequences as fans cheer, and halls fill out for weeks. It can be argued that this is all just good fun, a release, a brief break from the daily grind for adults, but it does have an impact on the still-developing brains of children. Violence has infiltrated every form of media, and most children are exposed to it through one device or another throughout the day.
Multiple studies from around the world have underlined the correlation between exposure to violent content and aggressive behaviour and psychological issues in children. A 2019 study published in the Egyptian Journal of Health Care covered 320 students from two primary schools in Egypt and found that more than half of them reported severe anxiety, while the rest reported moderate anxiety.
“When exposed to violence initially—whether on-screen or real life—the child experiences anxiety, uncertainty, fear, even depression,” says Dr. Ruksheda Syeda, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist at Trellis Family Centre.
Shradha Mehra Virani, mother to a six-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter based in Mumbai, remembers the time two years ago when her then six year old daughter watched one of the Harry Potter movies and was terrified by the scenes depicting the evil wizard Voldemort. “She was too scared to go into dark rooms, she’d wake up crying in the middle of the night. We worked on it for a long time by having conversations to help her understand the difference between reality and make-believe. After two years, she seems to have finally gotten over it,” Virani says.
In cases where the child’s anxieties aren’t addressed or assuaged sufficiently, and further exposure to violence continues, the child begins to become desensitised to violence. The consequences of this are far-reaching. “They begin to lose the ability to empathise with another being. They may engage in aggressive behaviours themselves,” elaborates Dr. Syeda.
According to a 2007 study (The Impact of Electronic Media Violence: Scientific Theory and Research, USA) published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, media violence significantly increases the risk of a viewer behaving more violently in the short term and in the long run. “Children automatically acquire scripts for the behaviours they observe around them in real life or in the media, along with emotional reactions and social cognitions that support those behaviours,” the findings say.
Children tend to be full of energy: they’re always running around and they play by engaging each other. They push, shove, fight. It can so easily get way more aggressive than just regular old play. The odds of this increase drastically from grade six and upwards, when puberty begins to kick in, says Shiven Prem, 33 , who teaches Hindi and music to primary classes at a private school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
“There have been instances of middle schoolers overreacting to someone accidentally bumping into them in the corridors. Maybe it’s their developing sense of individuality, the hormones beginning to rage and what they are picking up from the media as heroic or masculine behaviours,” he adds. Prem also co-facilitates a virtual support group for men, and observes that childhood experiences greatly shape how individuals experience life in adulthood.
Besides increasing the chances of children engaging in aggressive behaviour towards others, habitual exposure to media violence also affects children’s ability to engage in pro-social behaviours, which could impact their daily activities, the ability to be part of the community and form healthy relationships. The end result, Dr. Syeda says, would be a world full of lonely individuals, who are devoid of empathy and full of misdirected aggression.
The Indian Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of one hour of supervised screen time per day for children between ages two and five years, and less than two hours per day for children 5–10 years. The article published in December 2021 reads: “Families should [...] monitor their children’s screen use to ensure that the content being watched is educational, age-appropriate and non-violent. Families, schools and pediatricians should be educated regarding the importance of recording screen exposure and digital wellness as a part of routine child health assessment, and detect any signs of cyberbullying or media addiction; and tackle it timely with expert consultation if needed.”
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Many parents as well as children mistook Barbie, which hit the screens recently, for a kids’ movie, probably because of the way that it was marketed. Families took children to the U/A rated film that has a scene showing street sexual harassment. “My daughter wanted to see it but a quick search told me that there was a mention of masturbation in it. I decided it was not appropriate for my children, so I haven’t watched it either,” Virani says.
People tend to justify taking their children to grown-up movies saying the exposure would prepare them for real life, but that is not what ends up happening, reckons Prem. “The child’s inner voice may be telling them that they don’t like it, that it’s scary. But they may look at the adults around enjoying the movie and decide that their inner voice is probably wrong,” he says.
Conscious, compassionate parenting is the need of the hour, Dr. Syeda says. “Whether you’re a parent or a teacher or just an adult in a child’s life, you must have conversations with the child about right and wrong. Teach them that compassion, kindness and generosity are signs of strength. Model healthy expression of emotions, be it happiness or anger. And give them the tools to decide who they want to be when they grow up,” she advises.
Indumathy Sukanya is a Bengaluru-based writer and artist