Screen violence can be a gateway drug to other kinds of vices, according to a new study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Take “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” in which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt tear off each other’s clothes when they’re not unloading rounds, or any James Bond movie featuring the ultra-suave super agent taking his license to kill out for a spin and washing it down with a martini — shaken, not stirred.
They’ve got plenty of company. More than half of the highest grossing PG-13 movies over the past 25 years featured characters acting violently while also drinking, engaging in sexual behavior or smoking. The post-aggressive pleasure seeking usually happened within a five-minute segment, researchers found.
“These are risky behaviors that teens have been known to engage in — behaviors like smoking, drinking and sex,” Amy Bleakley, lead author of the study and a senior research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told TheWrap. “We know there’s evidence that teens imitate what they see on screen, which is problematic given that these behaviors are linked with violence.”
The implication is that the ratings system established by the Motion Picture Association of America to give parents a tool for figuring out what films are appropriate for children is flawed. Bolstering that argument is another recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which found that gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985 and that movies with that rating contained more gun violence than the top-grossing R-rated movies in 2012.
“It seems like [the ratings system] is not necessarily doing the job it set out to do in terms of shielding youth from inappropriate content,” Bleakley said.
For studios, PG-13 is the most desirable rating and the one they seek for blockbuster hopefuls such as “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” because it allows them to access a broader audience than R-rated films. The MPAA has made some moves of late to strengthen its system. Last spring, the studio-backed organization kicked off a “check-the-box” campaign, that included more expansive ratings descriptors for movies and that made the ratings blocks that accompany films more prominent in advertisements.
“It’s important to remember that a PG-13 is a strong warning to parents about the content of a film, and it is accompanied by a descriptor that gives parents specific detail about which elements of the film warranted the rating,” Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, said in a statement to TheWrap. “The purpose of the rating system is to reflect the standards of American parents, not set them – the rating board tries to rate a film the way they believe a majority of American parents would rate it. Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change with them.”
To be fair, there has been fierce ongoing debates for years about the impact that movie and television violence has on real world violence without any definitive conclusions.
Moreover, it’s not just PG-13 films. Nearly 90 percent of the top-grossing movies from 1985-2010 feature main characters acting violently, and in 77 percent of the movies those characters also engage in sexual behaviors, consume alcohol or smoke, the study claims.
However, just as smoking has declined in the United States as people become more attuned to the health risks associated with the behavior, so too has tobacco use in films dropped dramatically. Tobacco use by main characters occurred in 68 percent of the movies studied from 1985, but in just 21.4 percent in 2010. Smoking was also more prevalent in R-rated movies than in PG-13 films (57 percent to 30.1 percent).
Movie characters also are less likely to enjoy a cocktail today than they were in the Reagan era. From 1985 to 2010, alcohol use in movies fell from 89.6 percent to 67.3 percent, the study showed.
To arrive at they study’s conclusions, researchers examined 390 movies drawn from the 30 top-grossing movies each year from 1985, the first full year that the PG-13 rating was instituted. The study was published in the January 2014 issue of “Pediatrics” and funding was provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.