In a review of the 945 top-grossing films since 1950, researchers for the American Academy of Pediatrics found that movies rated PG-13 have become progressively more violent, with gunplay tripling since 1985. In fact, today's PG-13 movies are more violent than most R-rated films, the study shows.
A lot of the mayhem is cartoon violence – quite literally, since many of the movies are based on comic book characters. But those characters are not what they used to be. Back in 1966 when Batman was conceived for TV, for example, the caped crusader would throw a punch and the word "pow" would explode on the screen. In Batman's latest cinematic incarnations, everything explodes. Gotham is grim, the villains are grotesque and sadistic, and Batman is a brooding superhero who matches his foes in his capacity to suffer and to mete out punishment.
A PG-13 rating is supposed to keep kids away from this sort of dark, violent world, but we all know that seldom happens. Heightened violence fills movies like last summer's superhero hits, "Iron Man 3" and "Man of Steel," as well as the "Transformers" franchise, while kids fill the theater seats.
And, if they are not at the theaters, kids are watching at home – not infrequently with mom and dad at their side. The average American parent does not seem to worry overly much about the violent chaos in which their children are immersed on screens large and small. The researchers, on the other hand, believe there is a link between movie bloodshed and increasing hostile behavior among children and teenagers.
"The presence of guns in films also provides youth with scripts on how to use guns," the report said. "In addition, children no longer need to go to movie theaters to see films; films are readily available on the Internet or cable. Thus, children much younger than 13 years can easily view films that contain ample gun violence."
Or they can just watch broadcast television where, as in theatrical films, the violence has been ramped up sharply over the years. Compare the old "Hawaii Five-O" with the new series. In the 1970s, the police procedural in the palm trees was a bit ponderous; a lot of talk and not all that much gunplay. The new "Hawaii Five-O" zooms along with high capacity weapons blasting away and vivid depictions of the dead and maimed. The show makes Honolulu look as dangerous as Mogadishu.
Admittedly, “Hawaii 5-O’s” new McGarrett is a buff ex-Navy SEAL who chases down a culprit or two in nearly every episode. Is all that running around going to encourage kids to jog more and stay fit? Or does today’s hyper-violent entertainment only incline them to be trigger-happy? The evidence, so far, does not seem conclusive, but it is hard to deny we are running a high-risk experiment with America’s youth by pummeling them with harrowing scenes of violence in movie after movie, TV show after TV show.
By the time they turn 18, let's hope most of our kids can still distinguish violent fantasy from the real world where problems are best resolved without recourse to a gun.