Thousands of schoolchildren are to be shown film clips featuring violence, drug abuse and sexually explicit language in an experimental programme that could pave the way for a further relaxation of the UK's censorship rules.
The British Board of Film Classification is already under attack for relaxing its guidelines to allow more casual sex, horror and violence to be shown in 15-certificate movies.
Now it is inviting children from around the UK to special screenings designed to judge the success of its decisions, and to help it to decide whether to go even further.
By gauging their reaction to scenes involving such "adult" behaviour as sex and drug-taking from films already available to them, it hopes to make up its mind whether to make the current 12 category advisory, as with the PG rating.
Around 250 children aged 15 to 18 will attend the first screening, which is to be held next month in east London.
The excerpts to be shown include scenes from movies that narrowly missed out on 18 certificates because of their disturbing content. In one sequence, taken from horror movie Valentine, a scantily clad young woman is murdered by a maniac wielding a power drill, while another, from the gothic fantasy Sleepy Hollow, depicts a small boy hiding beneath the floorboards of a house while his family is slain by a headless horseman.
The screening will also include strong scenes cut from from TV broadcasts such as teen horror Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Simpsons. While these scenes are not shown on British TV they are available on videos of the show. Each clip will be preceded by a brief warning and an explanation of the context in which it appears in the film from which it is taken.
Ros Bates, the senior BBFC examiner behind the new initiative, said it was introduced to give children direct say in film regulation which, until now, has been reserved for adults.
"Before we issued our revised guidelines last year, we held our first proper public consultation, but we talked only to adults at that stage," she said. "The guidelines aren't set in stone, and from now on we are planning periodic reviews. With this in mind it was suggested that we should really be asking for the views of the biggest audience for films and videos: adolescents. We want to find out what 15- to 18-year-olds think about our classification decisions and whether they believe we're getting them right. After they have seen the clips we will be asking them to fill in questionnaires.
"We obviously won't be showing the children anything from an 18 film, but we have deliberately chosen clips that address more adult themes, some of them from films that were borderline when it came to deciding which certificate they should be given. Taking material out of context is always problematic, but we will do our best to warn the children of anything scary or risqué and to set the context for them."
Miss Bates said that, as well as expressing their own views on the excerpts, it was hoped that the children would be able to comment on how their younger siblings might be affected. Over the coming months a further nine screenings, or "junior roadshows", would be held nationwide, some of them aimed at younger children.
News of the screenings has drawn a mixed response from parents and child protection groups. Arthur Cornell, chairman of the Family Education Trust, a charity which promotes traditional family values, said: "I think it's quite difficult to sit children down and ask them to assess what is and what isn't good for them. No youngster watching one of these clips is going to say, 'oh, that frightened me dreadfully', because it's not cool to say that."
Eileen Hayes, parenting adviser for the NSPCC, which opposes the prospective changes to the 12 classification, added: "Parents increasingly have less influence over their children's lives, especially when it comes to screen violence. Although research on the links between film violence and behaviour is inconclusive, parents feel the need to be cautious.
"The BBFC excuses the relaxation of certificates by saying that children are growing up faster, but the reality is that we are forcing them to do so by exposing them to more adult images. Parents who want control over their children's viewing will find this proposal undermining."Reuse content