Violence in movies prevalent despite rating system

11 December 2013

Violent movie characters often engage in other risky
behaviors like sex and drinking, according to a new study — and those
compounded behaviors occur equally in PG-13 and R-rated movies.

“I think the take home message from this is that the
motion picture rating system is not helping parents discriminate which movies
children should see and which movies they should stay away from,” said Dr.
James Sargent.

Sargent, from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and
the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, has studied media
influences on youth but wasn’t involved in the new study.

“We know that studies have been done that linked
smoking, sex and alcohol on screen to real life,” Amy Bleakley, the
study’s lead author, said. “We haven’t really looked at those being
clustered or what effect that might have.”

Bleakley is a senior research scientist at the Annenberg
Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Previous research has suggested the amount of violence in movies has increased over the past few decades.

For example, a 2012 study found that James Bond films contain an increasing amount of violence despite retaining the brand’s PG or
PG-13 ratings from the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) (see
Reuters Health story of Dec. 11, 2012).

The MPAA uses ratings that “are assigned by a board of
parents who consider factors such as violence, sex, language and drug
use,” according to the association’s website.

For the new study, the researchers tracked violence and
risky behaviors in 390 top-grossing movies from 1985 to 2010.

Bleakley and her colleagues write in a paper released
December 9 in Pediatrics that 1985 was the first year the MPAA began assigning
the PG-13 label, which strongly cautions parents that some of the movie’s
content may be inappropriate for children under 13 years old.

In their new study, they found that about 90 percent of the
top-grossing movies over a 25-year period contained at least one violent main
character. That was consistent across MPAA rating labels and across the 25-year

That same character engaged in at least one other risky
behavior in about 77 percent of those films — most often drinking and sex.

What’s more, there was no difference between PG-13 and R
movies in how often violent characters participated in those other behaviors.

A restricted — or R — rating requires parental or adult
supervision for children under 17 years old.

Sexual content also remained steady throughout the study
period, occurring in about 82 percent of movies.

The proportion of movies with alcohol use decreased from
about 90 percent in 1985 to about 70 percent in 2010.

Tobacco use declined the most during the study — from 68
percent of the movies studied in 1985 to about 21 percent in 2010.

“I think smoking is unique in that there has been a
societal normative change in smoking and in the past 20 years it’s less
socially acceptable smoke,” Bleakley told Reuters Health. “The movies
are reflecting that.”

Sargent said the decline in smoking in films during the
study period shows that the industry can change.

“It’s important to remember that a PG-13 is a strong
warning to parents about the content of a film, and it is accompanied by a
descriptor that gives parents specific detail about which elements of the film
warranted the rating,” wrote MPAA spokesperson Kate Bedingfield in a
statement to Reuters Health.

“The purpose of the rating system is to reflect the
standards of American parents, not set them – the rating board tries to rate a
film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it,”
she said.

“Societal standards change over time and the rating
system is built to change with them.”

Bleakley and her colleagues write that movies create
so-called “scripts” that show what is supposed to happen in a
specific environment, like when violence should be used. It’s possible that
children would pick up on those scripts.

“They could be modeling what they see in the movies and
knowing these behaviors cluster in the movies makes it a more plausible
hypothesis,” Sargent said.

He added that parents can’t rely on the rating system to
tell them which movies are appropriate for their children.

“I think the only thing they can do is restrict the
number of movies kids watch a week,” he said.

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