The psychological impact of exposing children to 'harmful content' and why age restrictions matter

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There is plenty of harmful content readily available on the internet and on television, even in the form of animations and cartoons...
There is plenty of harmful content readily available on the internet and on television, even in the form of animations and cartoons...

Children often view age restrictions as another restrictive tool put in place to ruin their fun, and research shows that some parents may agree. 

However, the dangers of allowing sensitive and impressionable viewers to be exposed to harmful content can have a long-lasting negative impact.

Age restrictions are put in place to protect children from viewing potentially harmful content in films, games or televised shows. 

The age restrictions also help parents and carers decide what is appropriate for their children to watch based on which developmental stage they are at. 

Given that children are impressionable and there is plenty of harmful content readily available on the internet and on television, even in the form of animation and cartoons, it is imperative for parents to know the dangers of exposing children to harmful content.

READ | Young people’s positive changes in behaviour are significantly linked to watching sex edutainment

What is harmful content? 

According to the Film and Publications Board (FPB), "The classification or rating of films in the best interests of children involves the use of guidelines which identify not only what is potentially disturbing or harmful to children, but also what is generally accepted by the South African community as inappropriate viewing for children in the relevant age-groups."

'Harmful content' can be information, images or videos that can be distressing, misleading, promote dangerous behaviours or are directed at adults. This includes: Violence or graphic imagery, Nudity Drugs or alcohol abuse, Prejudice or hate, Adult sexual content, Strong or offensive language.  

How does harmful content affect children's psychological development?

If children are exposed to this content and have not yet matured to a point where they are able to understand and identify the difference between reality and make-believe, watching harmful content could have a detrimental effect on their psychological development. 

For example, when children are shown content in which the heroic character is admired for committing violent acts against the villains or 'bad guys', this may create a 'warped' perception of violence - a perception that violence is applauded.

According to Kids Health, exposure to harmful content could also lead to the following behavioural changes in children:

  • Behavioural issues, such as fighting
  • Risky behaviour, such as experimental drinking or smoking. 
  • Sleeping issues, such as nightmares or insomnia
  • Heightened anxiety

For this reason, it is vital that parents pay attention to age restrictions and parental guidance instructions where applicable.

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How do I interpret age restrictions?

The age restriction classification guidelines are as follows: 

"A": Suitable for all 

"PG": Parental guidance 

"10": Not suitable for children under the age of 10 years

"13": Not suitable for children under the age of 13 years

"16": Not suitable for children under the age of 16 years

"18": Not suitable for persons under the age of 18 years 

"L": Strong or offensive language

"N": Nudity 

"P": Prejudice or negative stereotyping

"S": Sex

"V": Violence

How do you decide what your children can watch?

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