Will you be taking your kids to a movie this holiday season? If so, how will you decide what's appropriate for them to see?
A movie's rating—whether it is rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America--is intended to help guide that decision. But a new study, published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics, finds serious flaws in the rating system when it comes to on-screen violence.
Recent PG-13 movies have contained at least as much violence as R-rated movies, according to the study, while violence in movies overall has increased dramatically: "Our research found that violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and that gun violence in PG-13 films has increased to the point where it recently exceeded the rate in R-rated films," the study concludes (emphasis mine).
Making matters more confusing, Entertainment Weekly points out ways in which the MPAA ratings can seem arbitrary. The Dark Knight Rises got a PG-13 despite its violence and dark themes, while the new Judi Dench film Philomena originally received an R (later changed on appeal to a PG-13) for using the F-word twice.
The MPAA defended itself to Entertainment Weekly by saying its decisions reflect the values and concerns of parents across the country—hence, a restrictive rating for foul language. No doubt this is true, and I appreciate such warnings, but what about violence? Are most parents OK with that for young children (or even 13 year olds) who might be drawn to a PG-13 film in part because the rating signals a more mature movie? Personally, I am much more concerned about my kids watching movies filled with violence and its aftermath than I am about characters dropping a few F-bombs (though those do concern me as well). I am guessing I am not alone in this.
The Pediatrics study did find a slight decline in violence in G- and PG-rated movies—good news for those of us with young kids—but the huge rise in PG-13-movie violence is troubling. These movies are not restricted the way R-rated movies are, and the rating is just an advisory.
For decades, researchers have studied the effects of exposure to violent media on aggression in children and youth. The evidence from these studies has been reviewed numerous times, and nearly all researchers have reached the same conclusion: exposure to media violence can increase aggression. After reviewing the available evidence, 6 public health organizations (the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association) endorsed a joint statement that concluded: "The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children."
Where does all of this leave us parents? To state what should be obvious: Do your research and don't rely just on a film's MPAA rating. Many great resources, most of them free, offer a more in-depth look at the movies our kids might be seeing, allowing us to make educated decisions based on our own personal values and what we feel is right or wrong for our kids to see.
The best of these services look not just at the potential kid-related problems in a movie—whether it has bad words or exposed skin, for instance—but also explore whether kids will actually like the film (so we can avoid the wholesome-but-boring offerings) as well as how we might use the movie to spark family discussions about important issues. Common Sense Media's movie review section is one such resource, as is the blog Movie Mom, by Nell Minow (whom I used to edit, in full disclosure). At both of these sites and others like them, parents can find detailed, nuanced, and very helpful reviews that go beyond a mere letter to help us make movie-watching decisions that are right for our kids.
Image of dark movie theater via Shutterstock.