Study: Parents and MPAA Raters Can Be Desensitized to Sex and Violence in Film

Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Daniel Craig in 'Casino Royale'

Movies that might have been rated R a few decades ago are actually less violent than movies that are rated PG-13 today

Parents — presumably including the ones the MPAA relies on for movie ratings — become desensitized to sex and violence in movies the more they are exposed to such scenes, according to a study set for release on Monday.

The study indicates that when parents first see a scene involving graphic sex, their first instinct is that the movie isn’t suitable for children under, on average, 17.2 years of age. For a scene with violence, the initial reaction is children under 16.9 years of age shouldn’t watch.

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But as they watched more and more sex and violence on the screen, their opinions changed significantly — down to 13.9 years for violence and 14 for sex, according to the study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The authors studied 1,000 parents of children ages 6-17 who watched scenes from several films: 8 Mile (2002, rated R); Casino Royale (2006, PG-13); Collateral (2004, R); Taken 2 (2012, PG-13; Die Hard (1988, R); Live Free or Die Hard (2007, unrated DVD version); The Terminator (1984, R); and Terminator Salvation (2009, PG-13).

The study is set for publication in the journal Pediatrics, which says of the movies chosen: “They include sexual encounters that leave little to the imagination, executions that come by surprise and battles between humans and robots that end in the graphic ‘death’ of the robot.”

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The study explores what it calls “ratings creep,” whereby movies that might have been rated R a few decades ago are actually less violent than movies that are rated PG-13 today. The phenomenon doesn’t apply as much to sex.

“People who rate movies for the MPAA, who are themselves parents, could be subject to the same desensitization and thus more likely to be lenient when it comes to evaluating the appropriateness of such content for children,” the authors said.

An MPAA spokesperson had no comment on the study.

“We were surprised to see the transfer of desensitization,” said Dan Romer, associate director of the APPC. “If the parents saw movie clips with violence, they became more accepting of the sex scenes, and vice-versa.”

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“Children are affected by what they see and hear,” the upcoming article in Pediatrics says. “Research supports the connection between viewing violent media and later aggression in individual children.”

The Pediatrics article will also suggest that the MPAA conduct “interventions to prevent desensitization” among its raters, and also recruit more of them. The MPAA doesn’t disclose the identities of most of its “raters,” but says they each are parents of children ages 5-15 and that each rater serves no more than seven years.

“Parent raters for the movie industry may become progressively more approving of violence in movies simply because of their job,” the Pediatrics article will say.