Summer is prime time at the multiplex, as families head out for popcorn, adventure and a blood bath or two.

Young movie-goers who saw the latest installment of the popular PG-13-rated "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, for example, witnessed 583 deaths by cannonball, 65 by sword, 1 tentacle strangulation and 56 hangings -- including the execution of a child so small he needed help reaching the noose on the misty gallows of Port Royal.

There's nothing new about cinematic gore, but some experts are concerned that in recent years a "ratings creep" has allowed increased violence while lulling parents into a false sense of security.

In truth, movie violence has become so ubiquitous, Entertainment Weekly began tracking "summer movie body counts" a few years ago -- its 2007 tally, which includes PG-13 and R movies, crested the 17,000-corpse mark June 1.

And it's not just on the silver screen.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, children who watch two hours of cartoons a day are exposed to 10,000 violent acts per year. Since 1997, television has had a voluntary ratings system, with ratings set by television networks, but East Bay child psychologist Richard Freed questions its effectiveness, pointing to the description of "fantasy violence" for "Power Rangers," in which characters are constantly fighting.

"Fantasy violence? That's a media term," says Freed.


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"When you're 5 and 6, you don't do a good job differentiating between fantasy and real violence."

Freed, who splits his time between the hallways of Antioch's Kaiser Hospital and a private practice in Lafayette, feels so strongly about the "don't-trust-the-ratings" issue, he addressed the American Academy of Pediatrics last month. He launched a call to arms in "Pediatrics," the academy's monthly journal, to say it's high time doctors stopped encouraging parents to rely on industry-generated ratings.

Besides, parents are the first to admit the ratings can be confusing.

Maureen Brooks, who has three sons, ages 9 to 16, finds many ratings -- particularly those for television shows -- inconsistent. And some DVDs have no ratings at all. Nicolas Cage's action flick "Ghost Rider," for example, was rated PG-13 in theaters, but the DVD the Brooks family rented turned out to have no rating at all.

In those instances, Brooks, who lives in San Ramon, usually previews a movie before showing it to her 9-year-old, but watching a movie twice is "difficult," she says, "I just don't have the time."

So how are movie ratings determined? The Motion Picture Association of America and National Association of Theater Owners use parent boards to determine ratings, but appeals are granted, the MPAA explains, by "distributors and exhibitors knowledgeable about the industry."

And that creates an inherent conflict of interest, say critics at Kids-in-Mind.com, a family-centric movie review site.

"The rating of choice right now is PG-13," states the Web site. "Parents like it better than the more adult R-rating, and kids like it better than the more juvenile PG rating. ... So, in order to accommodate the marketing demands of studios and theaters, the MPAA has been slowly but surely changing its criteria so that a PG-13 movie today contains far more violence, sexual content and profanity than a few years ago."

Whether it's on video games, movies or television, an immense body of research links repeated exposure to violent media with "elevated fear and anxiety, desensitization to human suffering and increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviors," says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston.

"It's a lot like smoking," says Freed. "One cigarette doesn't cause lung cancer, but years and years? Media's the same way. It's the cumulative risks when kids see tens of thousands of violent acts a year, then some kid nudges you on the playground. You're more likely to push or punch back."

So what's a parent to do?

Vigilance and research are key, says Freed. Read detailed movie reviews on sites such as CommonSenseMedia.com, and pay particular attention to the "Three R's" -- repetition, role models and rewards. Movies or video games that include repeated violent acts, glamorized action heroes and rewards -- a video game's extra points or access to the next level, for example -- are red flags.

Word of mouth is another good resource. Cindy Harris, a Novato mom, took her 6- and 8-year-old sons to see "Shrek the Third" and "Ratatouille" this summer, after reading detailed reviews on the Internet and talking to other families.

"I rely on other parents' feedback," she says. "As long as there isn't violence or sexual content in a movie, we'll go see it -- even if it's bad, like 'Surf's Up.'"

When she does allow her kids to watch more mature fare, such as "Star Wars" movies or "Pirates of the Caribbean," they see it on DVD at home in the middle of the day, "so it's not the last thing (they) remember before going to bed."

Still, even the best-intentioned parent can be undermined.

Richmond mom Christa Franklin thought she'd protected her middle schoolers by buying only E-rated games. But, when kids swap, parents need to pay attention.

"Any thought that I had of total control of the gaming situation was clearly a delusion on my part," she says. "One day I came home early and my son was so involved in the game that he didn't notice me. I, however, noticed him running over prostitutes in a beat up old Cadillac, racking up points in the game 'Grand Theft Auto.'

"I told him to call the owner up," she recalls, "and make arrangements for the game to be picked up before I turned it into a shrinky-dink in my oven. Imagine my surprise when the son of my church youth director arrived at the door."

Turns out, the "contraband kid" had gotten it from someone else, Franklin says, "But I have control now. I think."

Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or jburrell@cctimes.com.

ParentAL GUIDANCE SUGGESTED

Online resources for parents seeking detailed family-centric movie and video game reviews.

COMMON SENSE MEDIA -- This San Francisco-based media review site offers families detailed critiques of movies, video games and television shows, including ratings for sexual content, violence, language and messages on social behavior, drug and alcohol use, etc. It also carries reader reviews and book suggestions. Fans of Pixar's "Ratatouille," the review tells families, will enjoy the "Anatole" books, too. Find it online at http://www.CommonSenseMedia.org.

KIDS-IN-MIND -- A complex 3-number grading system yields consistent ratings for sex and nudity, violence and gore, and profanity. The movie critiques "are so detailed they seem absurd," the site's reviewers admit, "but we'd rather err on the side of comprehensiveness." One caveat: You'll need to spend time surfing the site to gain enough context to interpret the latest "Die Hard" movie's 4.5.6 rating or the 2.2.3 earned by "Evan Almighty." Find it at Kids-in-Mind.com.

MOVIE MOM -- Family-friendly film and DVD capsule critiques by Chicago Tribune columnist Nell Minow are available at http://movies.yahoo.com/mv/moviemom/. These easy-to-read commentaries point out objectionable content but lack the detail of Kids-in-Mind.