June 8, 2007 PG-13 films have lots of "happy violence," say UCLA researchers. Borrowing from the late communications theorist George Gerbner, happy violence is that which is "cool, swift and painless." PG-13 films don't consider the consequences of violent acts, such as injury, death and the shattered lives of the people involved.
And why this matters is simple, says Theresa Webb, a researcher with the department of epidemiology and the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA's School of Public Health: Youth violence is a commonplace occurrence in American society. Homicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. And media depictions of violence help teach such acts to children, leading to three effects — increased aggression, fear for their own safety, and a desensitization to the pain and suffering of others.
In a study published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, Webb and her colleagues report that in a sample of 77 PG-13 rated films, they recorded a total of 2,251 violent actions, with almost half resulting in death. Although a small subset of this content contained violence that was associated with negative effects such as pain and suffering, only one film —"Pay It Forward," in which the young hero is stabbed to death — contained violence that would demonstrate to youthful viewers how horrific violence can be.
"Violence permeated nearly 90 percent of the films in this study," Webb said. "And while the explanations and causes of youth violence are very complex, the evidence is clear that media depictions of violence contribute to the teaching of violence.
"This is especially true in our society, where the average young person's engagement with visual media in all its forms can run to as many as eight hours a day."
The researchers sampled all the PG-13 rated films from among the 100 top-grossing movies of 1999 and 2000, as established by the Hollywood Reporter. To obtain their results, the researchers coded each act of violence and the context in which it was presented based on features known to put violence in a good or bad light. Such features include the motivation for violence, the presence of weapons, the consequences of violence and the degree of realism — cartoonish, fantasy violence is less influential than a hero punching the villain in the face to resolve a problem.
Thus, the violence in "The Mummy," for example, is less influential than that shown in the James Bond film "The World Is Not Enough."
The findings follow up on a 2005 study the researchers conducted that looked at movie violence in all ratings categories established by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In that study, they found that parents using the ratings system to gauge movie content receive little meaningful guidance related to violent content.
This time around, the researchers selected the PG-13 category because it has become a repository for action films.
"These films," said Webb, "are often the largest budgeted ones made by the Hollywood film industry and have also been found to be equally, if not more, violent than R-rated films."
Webb faults Hollywood, which she says disavows any connection to education and insists that its only commitment is to transport and entertain viewers but in no way to edify or transform them.
"That's a cop-out," Webb said. "The science is clear that viewers do, in fact, learn from entertainment media. Indeed, popular films can act as powerful teachers engaging children and youths emotionally, even physiologically, in ways that teachers in classrooms could only hope."
Even worse, Webb noted, the MPAA ratings system, which runs from G for general audiences to NC-17 (under 17 not admitted), has in recent years been subject to "ratings creep."
"Ten years ago, a film that would have been rated R is now being rated PG-13," she said.
So what is a parent to do? Webb notes there are Web sites that give more comprehensive reviews of violence (and sex) in the movies than the MPAA ratings. These include Kids-in-Mind (http://www.kids-in-mind.com), PSV Ratings (http://www.familymediaguide.com/index.html) and Screen It! (http://www.screenit.com/subscribers/movies/2007/subscriber_sample2.asp).
She and her colleagues caution parents against allowing unsupervised viewing of films, call on pediatricians and public health professionals to continue their advocacy role for a more child-friendly media environment, and, most of all, urge the film industry and its rating board to recognize that their medium does indeed have an influence on young viewers. (The MPAA does not define its rating system as scientific or objective but as a collective judgment from a group of parents.)
Funding for the study was provided by a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other study authors included Lucille Jenkins, Nickolas Browne, Abdelmonem A. Afifi and Jess Kraus, all of UCLA.
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