How much film violence for kids? Parents losing their compass, study says.

A new study shows that the more parents watch violence and sex in TV shows and movies, the more permissive they are of what their kids can watch. The results were 'stunning,' one researcher said.

Warner Bros. Pictures/File
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in 'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.' Parents who watch the original, along with several other violent and sexually graphic films, became increasingly desensitized.

Parents who watch multiple movie scenes of sex and violence quickly become more permissive about how old a child should be to watch films with disturbing content, according to a study released today in the journal Pediatrics. 

Researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents six different film clips from movies rated R and PG-13, such as “Terminator,” “8 Mile” and “Taken 2.” After each scene, which either showed violent or sexual conduct, they asked the parents at what age a child should be before watching the movie. 

Regardless of the order in which they viewed the scenes, the parents started off relatively conservatively, saying on average that a child should be about 17 years old before he or she watched the movie in question. With each succeeding clip, though, the parents reduced this age judgement. By the last clip, parents set an average age of 13.9 for watching the violent movies and 14 years for the movies that included the sex scenes. 

“We expected there to be a certain amount of what we call desensitization,” says Dan Romer, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the lead author on the study. “But what was so stunning was how clear the pattern was and how dramatic it was.”

The findings comes amid a growing debate about the way movies are rated, as well as growing concern on the part of pediatricians and other child advocates about the increasing amount of violence shown on television and on the big screen.  

Recent studies have shown that the number of violent scenes in movies has skyrocketed since the 1980s. The amount of gun violence in top grossing PG-13 movies, for instance, has tripled in that time period, to the point that gun violence is more common in PG-13 films than it is in R-rated movies.  Professor Romer and his fellow researchers theorized that this “ratings creep,” as it is often called, may be explained in part by the desensitization that parents working with the Motion Picture Association of America, which gives the widely used G, PG, PG-13 and R labels, likely experience as they watch violent scene after violent scene. 

Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said that the organization had no comment on the study. She referred questions about rating policies to the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration’s website, which points out that “movie ratings give parents important information about a movie’s content, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether a movie is suitable for your family.”

Still, a survey commissioned last year by the nonprofit groups Common Sense Media and the Center for American Progress found that 77 percent of parents nationwide worry that violence in TV and movies contributes to violence in real life, and 85 percent said that the content of TV and movies makes it difficult to shield children from violence. And pediatricians say that increased exposure to violence on the screen is a significant risk factor in increased aggressive behavior for children. 

“Media violence does cause desensitization and does cause imitative behavior,” says Don Shiften, a pediatrician in Seattle who has worked extensively with the American Academy of Pediatrics on children’s exposure to violence in the media. “It’s a message we’ve been trying to deliver for decades.”

Some organizations have started working to provide alternative ratings tools for parents. Earlier this month Common Sense Media announced the “Common Sense Seal,” a way to recognize new movies that are high quality and positive for kids and families. The organization also rates other forms of media, such as television shows and mobile apps.

“There is generally a consensus that there is a greater amount of violence,” says Seeta Pai, vice president of research at Common Sense Media. “As an organization, we have been noticing it’s not just with movies....  It’s television shows, it’s streaming content – the proliferation and easy availability is one of the alarming trends we’ve been looking at.”

In the Pediatrics study, researchers found that neither education nor income play any mitigating factor in parents’ desensitization to violent or sexual content. Those parents who are avid movie watchers were more likely to be more permissive, while older parents were more likely to maintain higher age judgements. Sexual scenes made parents more permissive with violent scenes, as well as the reverse. 

“If they see violence, or if they see sex, they are more accepting of any kind of objectionable or upsetting content,” Romer says.

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