Violence isn't the only problem with violent movies aimed at younger audiences — they also tend to glamorize risky activities you might not want to encourage among kids, according to a new study.
"We know some teenagers imitate what they see on-screen," study leader Amy Bleakley, a research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, explained in a statement. "What concerns us is that movies aimed at younger viewers are making a connection between violence and a variety of risky behaviors — sex, drinking and smoking."
Let's start with the violence. Bleakley and her colleagues at Penn analyzed 390 top-grossing movies released from 1985 to 2010 and found that 90% of them contained at least one instance of a main character committing an act of violence. In these cases, "the aggressor makes or attempts to make some physical contact that has potential to inflict injury or harm," according to their study, which was published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
You might expect movies with violent scenes to crop up more frequently in films that earned an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America than in movies geared toward school-age kids, but you would be wrong.
Among the 123 films with a G or PG rating included in the analysis, 88.6% featured a main character who behaved violently, the Penn group reported. That was only slightly below the 89.5% rate for movies that got a PG-13 label and the 91.2% rate for movies rated R. None of the differences were large enough to be deemed statistically significant.
But that wasn't their only cause for concern. Among the 90% of movies that portrayed violence, 77% showed a main character engaging in another type of risky behavior immediately before, during or after committing a violent act, according to the study.
The most common example was pairing violence with sex, a label that included nudity, kissing on the lips, sexual behavior and actual sex (either explicit or implied). This was seen in 32.5% of R-rated movies and 35.3% of movies rated PG-13. That's right — there was more sex and violence in movies with the less-restrictive rating. In case you were wondering, violence was paired with sex in 17.9% of the G and PG movies too.
Just as frequent was the combination of violence and drinking, which occurred in 37.7% of R-rated movies, 35.3% of PG-13-rated movies and 13% of PG- and G-rated movies.
"There's kind of a James Bond effect, in which violence is glamorized in combination with other behaviors we otherwise try to discourage in youth," study co-author Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg center, said in the statement. Indeed, the researchers noted that the Bond films "Quantum of Solace" and "Casino Royale" were two of the PG-13 movies examined in the study.
All of this is troubling because many studies have made a connection between watching movies, TV shows and video games that feature violence, drinking and other risky behaviors and trying those behaviors, the authors write. Research also shows that "sensation-seeking" teens who are biologically predisposed to be attracted to "novel and intense experiences" prefer to watch "high-arousal" movies, which tend to be violent.
The 390 movies used in the study were picked from among the 30 top-grossing films (according to the trade magazine Variety) in the 25 years after the PG-13 rating went into effect.
There were a couple of bright spots. Smoking and other tobacco use declined from 68% of movies in 1985 to only 21% in 2010. Drinking declined too, from 89.6% to 67.3% over the same period. Depictions of explicit sex were much less common in PG-13 movies than in R-rated ones (though it did crop up in 30.1% of the PG-13 movies analyzed).
But for the most part, the researchers seemed disturbed by the pervasiveness of violence and other activities that aren't appropriate for kids.
"On average, violent content accounted for almost 30% of films' segments," they wrote in the study. "Of the segments with violence, 40% featured violence co-occurring with another risk behavior."
The researchers also lamented the phenomenon of "ratings creep," which they described as "finding more explicit content in movies with lower ratings (i.e., PG-13) over time." Their discovery that PG-13 movies had essentially the same amount of violence, drinking and sex as R-rated movies "is consistent with research on the questionable effectiveness of the ratings system as a tool to shield youth from inappropriate content," they wrote.
[Updated 11:43 a.m. PST, Dec. 10: Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, defended the ratings system as one designed 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."
Bedingfield also noted 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."]
The findings come on the heels of another study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center that called the MPAA's movie ratings system into question. It found that movies aimed at teenagers contain more gun violence per hour than films made for adults. That study was published last month and appeared in Pediatrics as well.