Help! My kid wants to watch a 15 film

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Most of us have memories of that video we watched as a kid that spooked us for years (Thriller video, anyone?). And who can truthfully say they didn’t watch a single 15-rated film until after midnight on their 15th birthday?

Film ratings. Tweens are notorious for pestering parents to let them watch 12-rated films, and who can blame them when so many films – and superhero movies in particular – are so appealing? Not to mention the licensing… Those toys are designed as much for kids as their child-at-heart parents.

Take the Star Wars series, for example. The original three films from the seventies were all classified U – Universal (ie suitable for all). And yet the prequels and sequels range from PG up to 12. Bloody confusing it is.

How are films classified?

Each film is classified by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and scored on a number of factors: discrimination, drugs, imitable behaviour, language, nudity, sex, threat, and violence – you can read the most recently updated classification criteria on the BBFC website.

As well as heeding those iconic certificate symbols on film posters, listings and DVD boxes, you can also double-check on the BBFC website or app. And if your kids need convincing, there’s a children’s version of the BBFC website to back up your argument – always handy to refer to a higher authority, we find!

BBFC film certificate logos

But what do film certificate ratings really mean?

  • U – Universal

Easy. Suitable for all, although the BBFC applies their U classification to kids aged 4 upwards. They do make suggestions for films that are particularly suitable for pre-school children in BBFCinsight, though, which covers detailed information about every film they rate, written for parents and including useful thematic pointers eg divorce, bereavement.

Their take: U films should be set within a positive framework and should offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror. So far, so safe…

  • PG – Parental Guidance

PG films shouldn’t unsettle children aged around 8 or over. Surprised? Us too. Most of us will have been screening PGs for the little ones from pre-school age, but that’s okay. The BBFC state that PG films can be watched by unaccompanied children of any age, but parents are advised to consider whether the content may upset younger, or more sensitive, children. Again, you can read the specific criteria for PG-rated films on the BBFC website.

  • 12 and 12A

This is where it gets a bit murky. The 12 and 12A ratings came in more recently, bridging the gaping chasm between PG and 15-rated films. Specifically, 12 relates to DVD or download content while 12A is only applicable at the cinema. According to the BBFC, the 12A certificate was introduced because there was a strong and widespread feeling amongst parents that some children under 12 were equipped to deal with films rated 12. There is also research to show that at this age group mental and emotional development amongst children matures at varying rates (which any parent of a tween knows to be true).

So you can see a 12A film if you’re not yet 12? Kind of. 12A and 12 films contain material that is not generally suitable for children aged under 12, and no one younger than 12 may see a 12A film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association (representing 90% of UK cinemas) says “although 12A means any child accompanied by an adult can attend, there is an expectation that a parent or guardian will exercise a degree of judgement in deciding whether a film is suitable, particularly for very young children. What may or may not be appropriate often depends on the child, and parents or guardians are best-placed to make that judgment.” Phil suggests swotting up via BBFCInsight before you make a decision.

  • 15 and 18 classifications

These ones are clear: no one younger than 15 may see a 15 film in a cinema, rent or buy a 15-rated video work, and no one younger than 18 may see a 18 film in a cinema, rent or buy a 18-rated video work. For obvious reasons.

What does the law say?

A cinema could lose its licence if it admits children under 15 to a 15 rated film, or under 18s to an 18 rated film, while it is against the law to supply a DVD to anyone below the age stated in the classification. That’s fairly unambiguous then.

What about streamed content?

The big players – Netflix, Amazon Prime etc – will all include BBFC classification info in their information about films, and you can apply restrictions across platforms, meaning content unsuitable for kids can only be accessed using a passcode. Find out how to apply kid-safe restrictions to your home entertainment set up.

And if your kids still don’t believe you?

You might have a future BBFC compliance officer on your hands. Send them over to the CBBFC website and let them loose on the ‘Rate a trailer’ page where they can choose from five trailers and put their own stamp on the latest film releases.

We’ll be in the kitchen dishing out the popcorn. Sweet or salted?