MONDAY, Aug. 4, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- A large proportion of American adolescents are getting early and regular exposure to violent movies, a new survey reveals.
The poll suggests that almost 13 percent of the nation's estimated 22 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 are viewing extremely graphic depictions of violence in film, whether in theaters, on DVDs, or on television.
"There's a lot of evidence to support the idea that when kids watch violent media, they become more aggressive," observed study co-author Dr. James D. Sargent, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H. "And yet violent media has become easier and easier to access for children. So, for the movie industry, the message is that the 1960s ratings system needs to be updated and made more explicit and relevant to the way movies are being distributed and seen today."
"But also, parents need to be much more careful about how their children consume violent media," he added.
Sargent's and his colleagues' findings are in the August issue of Pediatrics.
The Dartmouth researcher pointed out that the advent of DVDs has meant that new and even more violent versions of R-rated theatrical releases often become available now in completely un-rated forms. These DVD versions may reach a much larger group of children than in prior years, when such movies could only be seen in a theater.
Another problem, he added, stems from the relatively liberal ratings policy currently in force in the United States -- one that allows non-adult viewing of R-rated theatrical releases when a child is in the presence of an adult escort. According to the researchers, this type of practice is prohibited in Britain and in some other European nations.
"And, in any case, the American movie industry rates itself," added Sargent. "So, how and why some movies get an R rating, while others don't, isn't always rational. Because it's like the fox watching the chicken coop, and the industry is not going to do anything that limits it from getting as wide an audience as possible."
In the study, the Dartmouth team examined viewing patterns tabulated in a national telephone survey of more than 6,500 youngsters between the ages of 10 and 14. The survey was conducted in 2003.
In the poll, the researchers focused on viewings of 40 of the most violent movies from among 534 of the most recent releases at the time. Some of these films included depictions of physical beating and torture.
All 40 movies, including Gangs of New York, Blade, Training Day, and the list's most popular feature, Scary Movie, were rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America and UK18 by the British Board of Film Classification.
The survey found that boys, older teens, minorities (particularly black children), kids from lower economic backgrounds, those with relatively bad grades in school, and those whose parents had lower educational achievement were more likely to be exposed to extreme violence in movies.
Adolescents with particularly high exposure to violent cinema were more likely to have a TV in their bedroom and to indicate that their parents let them watch R-rated features.
Dr. Christopher P. Lucas, director of New York University's adolescent health promotion and suicide prevention program ("STEPS") at the university's Child Study Center in New York City, agreed that adolescent access to violence-laden film has broadened significantly in recent years. However, he disputed the notion that the research to date has confirmed a solid relationship between adolescent exposure to cinematic violence and aberrant behavior.
"There's quite a lot of validity to what these researchers are saying," he said. "Children are definitely far more able to access this kind of violent material. And it's potentially worrying. But the evidence isn't really there yet that there's a negative consequence."
"That's not to say that there isn't one," Lucas stressed. "But there just aren't any studies that have shown a direct connection to problem behavior and what the connection is, independent of a host of other factors. For example, children who are more violent in the first place tend to be the ones drawn more to material that is more violent. So, even the direction of any relationship is not clear."
For more on violent behavior in children, head to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.