Defining Childhood: What is Children's Media?

Corina Thompson and Stacey Snider

The term children's film or children's media brings certain familiar pictures to mind, ranging from Disney storybook movies like Mary Poppins, to animated features, to cool pre-teen flicks like 3 Ninjas. Most often, the term registers in the public mind as films made for children, and not for adult enjoyment. The spectrum, however, is much broader, and a discussion of children's media must include more than just Sesame Street, Disney, and other films and programs marketed directly to kids. The media involve children in multiple ways—obviously, and less obviously. Children’s media may include films that children watch, whether specifically created for them or not, films dealing with childhood issues or featuring a child protagonist, or even media created by children. The purpose of this article is to offer parents and educators a brief overview of the different aspects of children's media.

Created for Kids

Specifically concerning American children’s cinema and television, a few big conglomerates tend to crowd the stage. Among these are familiar names like Disney, involved with its own name-brand feature films and TV stations, as well as Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films, Buena Vista Films, Touchstone Television, ABC, and ESPN / ESPN 2; Nickelodeon, linked to Blockbuster, Paramount, MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central through owner Viacom; and Cartoon Network, part of the Turner Broadcasting household (owned in turn by Time Warner), which includes TBS, TNT, CNN, Hanna Barbara, Turner Classic Movies, and Newline Cinema (Miller).

While a list like this might seem exhaustive, the commercial entertainment world is not the only source for delightful and appropriate children’s media. Another valuable venue is PBS, or other local public television stations. Similar non-commercial organizations exist throughout the world, and productions from prominent children’s media communities, like Canada, the UK, and Scandinavia, are generally fairly easy to find. Because public programming is not dependent on the popular market—and often because it is a condition of their subsidy—it tends toward more educational material, rather than pure entertainment. Public stations produce and air programs that are not as well-known as commercial fare, but are certainly worth noting.

The independent film circuit also produces many tender and wonderful films, such as The Secret of Roan Inish, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Whale Rider. In addition, foreign children’s films are an ideal way to open the world of other cultures to children, and often provide a new way of looking at things. Children are likely to be delighted by such films as Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar); the fantastic French bug documentary Microcosmos, or Winged Migration, an avian adventure by the same producers; or Japanese-made jewels like Spirited Away and the earlier The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Even within the world of media produced for and directed to children, the possibilities are broad—finding some of these possibilities might require a little more effort than we’re used to, but promises rewards greater than we’ve previously encountered.

Adults Only?

While MPAA ratings are purportedly age-based (PG-13 precluding pre-teens, R precluding minors, etc.), they are not necessarily good indicators of what children should or do see; despite the fact that many films are adult themed and supposedly created for an adult audience, many children have access to them anyway. A 2000 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that approximately 31% of American homes have premium cable, which includes movie channels like HBO, Showtime, and STARZ. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission reported recently that 46% of theatres tested sold tickets to R-rated films to minors without a parent present.
Beside adult media children happen to see, there are also large amounts of films geared to younger people that contain very adult elements and scenes. It is no secret that the film industry advertises specifically—and effectively!—to young audiences, and many decisions regarding film tastes are based on those advertisements: does it look cool and exciting? In his book, Children's Films, lan Wojcik-Andrews makes reference to the day his young boys (ages eight and five) "came home...declaring that they had outgrown Barney...and were now old enough to watch...Batman..., Terminator 2...and Starship Troopers” (1). This suggests the added responsibility of parents to become aware of both the media they allow children to watch, and what children choose independently to see: despite the label some shows and films carry, as “for children,” parents need to be conscious of issues or images presented that may require some mediation or discussion.

Starring the Child

The presence of a child protagonist generally labels a film a kid's movie. However, children are often used to illustrate themes or stories that are perhaps too mature for children. Even these films can be labeled children's media—about rather than necessarily for children—as they often deal with difficult or disrupted childhoods. These themes, although disturbing, fill a place in the canon of film genres and add another, perhaps darker definition to what childhood may be.
Two films that find themselves in this vein are Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata and Ivan's Childhood directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both center on the life of a young boy disrupted by war. Grave of the Fireflies is especially graphic in its images, and the fact that it is animated—a traditional children's medium—makes it even more surprising. While the children in Grave of the Fireflies retain a bit of childishness even in their abandoned state, Ivan in Ivan's Childhood becomes a little adult and a ferocious soldier at the loss of his family. At the end of both films, the child protagonists die, one of starvation and the other by the enemy soldiers. Interestingly enough, despite the terribly disturbing elements of Grave of the Fireflies, it received a PG rating in the United States.

It is certainly good for children to know about the world around them, and that not all children in the world have the same lifestyles and comforts, but the decision as to whether to share such films with children is a sober one. These films and others (such as Taxi Driver, Los Olvidados, 400 Blows, etc.) often make profound statements about what it means to be a child, but the question to ask is whether or not an individual child is ready to understand that.

Created by Kids

A fundamental issue in film, especially in documentary filmmaking, is the responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. Films made by one group about another group—ethnicity, gender, culture—can have merit, but they can also be inaccurate. Among social groups represented in film by others, the child's voice is frequently lost in the adult’s presentation. There are, of course, inherent difficulties in handing over the production of films about children to children themselves, but the child's own perspective can become a powerful tool in bringing to life the realities of childhood.
An excellent example of collaboration on a film about childhood is the soon to be released film Thirteen, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Although hardly created for a children's audience, the film tells the true story of a thirteen-year-old girl who falls in with the popular crowd in her school, causing a disturbing transformation from the innocent child that she once was to the eyes-wide-open teenager she has become. What makes this film so significant is that Nikki Reed, the actual subject of the film, is also the co-author of the script and an actor. Her personal feelings and experiences are the inextricable base of the movie.

Industrial production is only one option: creation is not only about publishing or distributing, but gives creators opportunity to express themselves and learn about the world and their place in it. Children will most often not be consulted in the making of major motion pictures, but there are other ways for children to make their voices heard. One way is for parents to hand over the video camera: whether constructing a story or documenting ideas, thoughts and events, the very things that children choose to film can tell us a lot about how they think and what they value. Such films can also prove valuable insight to the individual child as they grow up and look back at the home films they’ve made. Letting children operate the camera is a wonderful way for them to practice creativity, and to learn to see the world through a different lens.

This article is by no means an exhaustive look at the definition of children's media. For more detailed information, read Children's Film by lan Wojcik-Andrews after which follows a detailed and useful bibliography leading to other references.

Annenberg Public Policy Center. “Media in the Home 2000: 5th Annual Survey of Parents and Children.” 1 Aug. 2003

Federal Trade Commission. “Mystery Shopper Survey & Parent-Child Survey: Appendix F.” 1 Aug. 2003.

Miller, Mark Crispin. “Free The Media.” The Nation, June, 1996.

Wojcik-Andrews, lan. Children's Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000.