When Kate Attea went to see Steven Spielberg's "Munich" last year – an R-rated film with themes of terrorism and revenge and with graphic portrayals of sex and violence – she was shocked to see a 7- or 8-year-old girl sitting behind her, occasionally asking her parents about the on-screen violence before her.
"It seems very obtuse of parents to think that has no effect at all," says Ms. Attea, a Chicago mother of a 1-year-old. She still remembers being "traumatized for years" after seeing "Poltergeist" in the third grade.
Even as parents push for more consistency in movie ratings and theater owners feel the pressure to keep unaccompanied teens out of "R" movies, the reality is that many parents choose – some thoughtfully, some casually – to take young teens and even preschoolers to those movies with them.
The movie industry now is considering amending its ratings system to include this new and specific admonishment to parents: Many R-rated movies are unsuitable for young children.
The exact wording has yet to be decided, but the change is being made in response to "complaints from people who go to R-rated movies and are disturbed to see young children in there," says Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The admonishment is part of the industry's broader plan, announced last week, to try to make the rating system clearer and its process more transparent.
"Parents have life experience, kids don't, and it's important to realize that the way their child experiences [a movie] is very different than the way they do," says Kimberly Thompson, a health-policy professor at Harvard and the director of the Kids Risk Project. She encourages parents to seek information about a movie ahead of time, and if they do allow their child to see it, to watch it with them and discuss it later. "Movies can give kids experiences that may influence their attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors, and it's important for parents to talk about any content they're experiencing," she says.
For some parents, though, making judgments about a movie's appropriateness ahead of time can be a challenge. Complaints about inconsistent standards – along with pleas from filmmakers who are often surprised by tough ratings – factored into the proposed changes by the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners, which jointly run the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) that assigns ratings.
A study by Professor Thompson's Kids Risk Project two years ago identified what it called "ratings creep." It showed that, over a decade, movies with PG, PG-13, and R ratings had more instances of violence, sexual content, and profanity, suggesting that standards were getting more lenient over time.
Many parents complain that it can be hard to know how graphic the violence is in a PG-13 or R movie, or why a movie earned its rating.
Under the proposed rules, which won't be final until March, CARA will post the ratings rules and standards – previously unpublished – online. It will also ensure that members of the ratings board are parents with children between ages 5 and 18, will identify a few of the senior members and post demographic information about the others, and will allow filmmakers who are appealing a rating to reference similar scenes in other rated films.
"It's a big change that we're going to post our rules and regulations on the website," says the MPAA's Ms. Bernards. The new rules, she says, have been in the works for awhile and come in response to feedback from parents, filmmakers, and others.
The proposed changes address some of the criticisms leveled against the system in the recent documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" – released on DVD this week – which characterized the ratings board as secretive, anonymous, and inconsistent.
But some parents say they long ago stopped using ratings as their reference for decisionmaking.
"Why would I trust the movie industry?" asks Lisa Wolfe, a New Yorker whose boys are 12 and 13. She particularly objects to the fact that a brief sex scene can get a movie an R rating, while a PG-13 movie might have extreme violence.
When he was 10, she chose to take one son to "Nowhere in Africa," an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film about a German-Jewish family in 1930s Africa. It had received an R rating for sexual content, but she felt it was a positive experience. She also took her sons to "Borat." She was surprised and a little disturbed by a naked wrestling scene, she says, but her big concern – that her sons wouldn't understand the subtlety of a film that uses racism to mock racism – proved unfounded, and she felt that seeing it with them and discussing it afterward helped them put it in context.
Some parents look beyond the MPAA ratings to sources that offer extra information. Common Sense Media began its website – which covers movies, video games, TV, and other media – in response to parents' pleas for a consistent system. The site rates media for sex, violence, language, and "message"; gives an "on," "pause," or "stop" button on each, and suggests specific ages.
The site gives "Billy Elliot," a film rated R largely for profanity, an "on" rating for 15-year-olds and up, while the PG-13-rated "Casino Royale" gets a "pause" rating for 14-year-olds and up, with a review calling attention to scenes with violence and torture, and its questionable message about sex and behavior.
"All kids and parents are different," says James Steyer, the website's CEO. His son is more at ease with fantasy violence than his daughter is, he notes. "To know your own kids, and then make a good judgment, you have to have the information."
Thompson also cites www.Kids-in-Mind.com and www.ScreenIt.com as providers of detailed information about movies. And when it comes to the truly inappropriate – the 7-year-old at "Munich" or a 4-year-old watching Hannibal Lecter eat brains in "Hannibal" – she wishes theaters would take action. They could create a pamphlet outlining why it's important for parents not to take young children into some movies, she says, or have a policy that they'll encourage families with young children to find a more appropriate movie.