Protect Our Children or Educate and Expose?

Content warning: this article addresses the portrayal of sexual assault in film and television.

The British Board of Film Classification, the regulatory body responsible for classifying film and television age ratings, have recently changed their guidelines. After 10,00 people were surveyed, the results revealed that most people find age classification generally helpful.  Parents and teachers in particular advocate for a more extensive classification, especially for online content. As younger viewers found sexual violence and other scenarios rooted in realistic contexts most disturbing, the BBFC consequently now classify rape scenes and other acts of sexual violence as suitable for ages 15 and higher rather than a 12A.

In their own conclusions, the BBFC justify this step by saying the majority of surveyed audiences preferred stricter classification and that they want to protect younger viewers from potentially harmful content. While this may be true for adults, mainly parents and teachers, the views of teenagers differed. They did find sexual violence disturbing but were far from crying for stricter classifications. In fact, the 15-rating seemed to be the most controversial in the survey among all audiences. Adults found it too low, because those films often contained sexualised content. But teenagers often found the same material suitable for 12-year-olds. The BBFC concluded from this (probably rightfully so) that many younger viewers watched movies that weren’t officially rated suitable for them. However, it does seem strange that the BBFC also saw this as a reason to enforce stricter age classifications.

If you ask teenagers for their opinion, you should probably listen to their concerns instead of ignoring or patronising them, even though this reflects some parents’ behaviour. Although it is understandable that we want to protect the youth from harmful and unsuitable content, a stricter age classification is not necessarily the right step to take.

But what should an ideal classification look like? And should an institution like the BBFC be the judge of that? A guideline for content is surely sensible, and Britain is not alone in this. Other countries like the US or Germany have similar institutions, but the individual classifications seem quite random. While all countries have some kind of universal and adult rating (be it R or 18), the middle section for younger viewers, however, varies. Germany for example has age ranges of 0 (which is equivalent with the British Universal rating), 6 years, 12 years, 16 years, and 18+. Also, there is a general rule that children from the age of six may go see film classified as 12 with their parents. This differentiation comes to show how arbitrary this system is.

But not only are the categories quite subjective, they also often lack nuance. Not every discussion of sexual violence has to be unsuitable for younger viewers. While I agree that detailed rape scenes or prolonged torture may not be adequate entertainment for 12-year-olds, in some contexts the portrayal of sexual violence may be educational. So, setting a focus on context rather than mere existence of an issue, might help. It is also hard to unify general ratings and individual personalities. Not every child is the same and can stomach the same amount of violence.

On top of that, general age classification relieves parents from responsibility. Which might be a reason for them complaining about the lack of classification for most online content. Instead of relying on someone else’s judgement they have to look into their children’s media and discuss disturbing contents with them. But this parental discussion could help younger audiences understand complex realities and ease their fears. With harrowing stories in the news, fiction can be a way of getting used to the harsh world, but also understanding that some people are horrible and that bad things can happen to good people.

However, it is true that parents can’t stay on top of every new movie or game. They should get some help through age classification. The BBFC is one candidate for the job. While governmental institutions could give rise to censorship concerns, an open online forum could be easily manipulated or abused. This is not to say that there is no other possible system, but that it would take time, effort, and considerable amounts of money to establish a valid alternative.

Overall, an age classification for media is not a bad thing. It might help, however, to focus on the harmful content in the form of trigger warnings rather than solely a number. Even though the BBFC gives reasons for their classifications, those could be more easily accessible in cinemas and on packaging. Teachers and parents should not rely too much on those classifications, but also use their own judgement and talk to their children. It would not hurt for all people involved to take more responsibility and to listen to young voices instead of claiming to know what is best for them.  

[Christina Schröck]

[Image credit: Henry Burrows/]

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