Study tracks kids’ viewing of violence

Times Staff Writer

The bloodthirsty fisherman isn’t the only one who can claim, “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.”

Nearly 9 million children also know the gory details of the R-rated 1998 horror sequel about teens fleeing a stalker.

In a study published in the August issue of Pediatrics, Dartmouth Medical School researchers found that violent movies like “Last Summer” attract, on average, 12.5% of 10- to 14-year-olds in the country, with boys, minorities and children whose parents don’t restrict viewing habits seeing the most gore.

The study did not ask children how they were able to watch the films -- whether by download, cable TV, rental or purchase of a DVD, or the old-fashioned way of sneaking into the theater.


But researchers noted that as movies become more accessible, it’s important to take note of the extent of kids’ exposure to violence, especially since the ratings system can seem vague in describing how a film earned its rating.

“It’s quite striking that 10-year-olds are watching these movies,” said Keilah A. Worth, lead author of the study. “Ten years old isn’t that far away from believing in Santa Claus.”

Researchers examined the viewing habits of more than 6,500 children, focusing on 40 “extremely violent” R-rated films released from 1998 to 2002.

The violent scenes run from the fantastic (vampire hunting in “Blade,” seen by more than a third of the group) to the realistic (the assaults in the police drama “Training Day,” viewed by 27% of respondents).


The Dartmouth study appears to go along with findings in a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission about underage viewing. Last year the FTC released a report indicating that whereas only about 40% of children ages 13 to 16 were able to purchase R-rated movie tickets at theaters, nearly 80% were able to buy DVDs of similar movies.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which has a board that determines ratings, intends R-rated movies to be seen by children younger than 17 only if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. MPAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Kaltman said the primary goal of the MPAA ratings system is to provide information to parents so they can decide whether a film is appropriate for children.

Kaltman noted that even as technology makes movies more accessible, it also makes ratings information more readily available for parents, who can check, a website operated by the MPAA. She said the MPAA added a warning on the site last year that R-rated movies are not suitable for children.

Still, some argue that ratings remain too confusing for parents. Film ratings aren’t displayed as prominently on DVD cases -- which can contain still more violent cuts of films -- as they are on movie posters or even video game boxes. And with TV and video games each governed by separate ratings bodies, movie ratings are part of a jumble of letters and numbers that parents might not be able to keep straight, analysts said.


“Do you know what Y7-SV means?” asked Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, an independent group that monitors media content, in reference to a TV ratings category. “It’s a hodgepodge of ratings. If parents have more specifics on content, they can make better decisions.”