Safety in the Movies

Simple, everyday safety messages that you teach your children are often ignored in the movies. A new study in the journal Pediatrics indicates that the entertainment industry could vastly improve upon scenes where high-risk behaviour is represented to kids.

Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among Canadian children. Unsafe safety practices seen on screen can lead to unsafe practices in everyday life, because children often imitate what they see in the movies.

Experts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) watched 125 of the top-grossing domestic G-rated and PG-rated movies for 2003 through 2007 to see how the film industry depicts high-risk behaviours in movies geared towards kids. Although, some improvements have been made over the years, they determined that half the scenes still continue to show unsafe behaviour, and the consequences of these behaviours are rarely shown.

The authors of the study looked for scenes where the films depicted unsafe practices, such as characters who didn’t wear seat belts, life jackets or bike helmets. Movies or scenes were excluded if they were animated, not set in the present day, or if they were fantasy, documentary or not in English.

The CDC authors then compared their findings to two previous versions of the study, one done in 1998-2002 and the other in 1995-1997. They found that in the most recent movies:

  • 22 scenes involved crashes or falls, resulting in three injuries and no deaths.
  • 75 per cent of boaters wore a personal flotation device (PFD), versus none (’98-’02) and 17 per cent (’95-’97).
  • 56 per cent of car passengers wore seat belts, versus 35 per cent and 27 per cent.
  • 35 per cent of characters used crosswalks, versus 15 per cent and 16 per cent.
  • 25 per cent of bicyclists wore helmets, versus 15 per cent and 6 per cent.

The results of this study indicate that there have been improvements in safety portrayals in children’s movies since the last two studies, but the film industry still needs to make progress in representing safety to children.

In the 2003 Christmas movie Elf, it shows the lead character, played by Will Ferrell, as he tries to cross a street in New York City but doesn’t look both ways and gets hit by a taxicab. In the movie, he gets up and walks away from the collision; in real life you most likely would not be able to do this.

Jon Eric Tongren, an author of the study, says that because the scene minimizes the accidents’ dangers, it might give young children a false sense of safety. And for films that kids have on DVD, they might watch that unsafe behaviour dozens of times, becoming desensitized to these dangers.

The authors of the study call on the film industry to continue to make improvements on how it depicts safety practices in children’s movies. Parents should highlight these representations of unsafe behaviors and educate children on the correct safe practices. Also, a great way for children to learn proper safety is to practice what you preach. Kids will follow by example. If you want your children to wear a helmet when they ride their bike, so should you.