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Movie Ratings Miss the Violence

Researchers find PG, PG-13 and R tags often don't reflect violence levels

MONDAY, May 2, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Movie ratings flop when it comes to warning parents about violence on the silver screen, new research suggests.

In an analysis of 98 of the most popular movies from 1994, California researchers found that most PG, PG-13 and R ratings showed little correlation to the frequency of violence in the films.

Making their Top 3 most-bodily violent films, as a prime example, was "The Jungle Book," an animated family movie with a PG rating.

"In the end, we believe the system is not working as well as it could," said study co-author Theresa Webb, a postdoctoral fellow at the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center, part of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in a rating system established in 1968 and intended as parental guidance, grades movies for nudity, violence, drugs, language and theme and also releases brief descriptions of the material that contributed to the movie ratings, such as "violence," "language," "strong sexual content" and "drug-related material."

The ratings include G for general audiences, all ages; PG for parental guidance suggested because some material may not be suited for kids; PG-13 for parental caution on material inappropriate for kids under 13; R for restricted, those under 17 need an adult along; and the rarely used NC-17, which is the equivalent of the defunct "X" rating and means no one under 17 is allowed into the theater.

Webb and her colleagues looked at 98 of the 100 top-grossing films of 1994, excluding the G-rated "Lion King" and an unrated film called "The Madness of King George."

Their findings, which appear in the May issue of Pediatrics, compared the ratings of the films to the frequency of violence depicted on screen.

The top movies of 1994 included "Pulp Fiction," "Forrest Gump," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The Mighty Ducks," "The Flintstones" and "The Santa Clause." All but three of the 98 films -- "Reality Bites," "Disclosure" and "Quiz Show" -- included at least one moment of bodily violence, the researchers said. In many cases, they added, the violence was designed to be funny.

The researchers found the average number of violent acts per film went up as the ratings became less children-friendly. PG-rated movies had an average 14 violent acts, compared to 20 in PG-13-rated movies and 32 in R-rated movies.

However, the researchers found that the ratings didn't coincide with the "seriousness" of violence in the films as they defined it.

The three films found to have the most body violence in the study were "Timecop" an action film rated R, which had 110 violent acts; "The Jungle Book," with 97 violent acts, and "True Lies", an R-rated action film that had 91.

They also said they found "numerous glaring contradictions." For one, the researchers said, the MPAA flagged language as the most problematic factor in some films, mostly PG and PG-13-rated, even though the films were as violent as those that were flagged specifically for violence.

The researchers also found five PG-rated films that were flagged primarily for language had at least 14 violent acts.

"Likewise," they reported, "in the R category, several films that were rated principally for language were saturated with violence."

Attempts by HealthDay to reach the MPAA for comment were unsuccessful.

University of Michigan psychology professor L. Rowell Huesmann, who studies violence in society, wasn't surprised by the findings, because he said there was more concern about language and sex than violence in the United States.

"There are interest groups that are outraged by the sight of a breast, a la Janet Jackson, or suggestions of sex, but don't mind someone being strangled, knifed or shot to death [on screen]," he said.

What to do?

Webb suggested that parents examine other sources of information about the content of movies, such as online guides, because "they can't trust that the ratings categories fully consider the violence content in any given film."

More information

Learn more about movie ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America's Classification and Ratings Administration.

SOURCES: Theresa Webb, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow, Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center, University of California at Los Angeles; L. Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D., professor, psychology and communications, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; May 2005 Pediatrics
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