After surveying 1,000 parents exposed to multiple clips of on-screen sex and violence in movies, a study found that parents become increasingly desensitized to acts of sex and violence with repeated viewing which appears to lead to an increasing acceptance to both. The result is that these parents are less likely to shield their kids from movies that contain sex and violence. In addition, the authors note that people who rate movies for the MPAA (themselves parents) could also 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.” Those behind the study said this effect could help to explain the “ratings creep” that has allowed more violence into films aimed at our youth.
The MPAA has long acknowledged that its standards have shifted over time but has traditionally attributed this to the changing standards of parents. Those changing standards of parents may actually be a result of the increased violence and sexual content in PG-13 movies, the study suggests. If repeated viewing of violence and sex makes parents less sensitive to it, then why wouldn’t that make the MPAA’s ratings board — who preview and rate hundreds of films a year — less sensitive, the study suggests. The MPAA had no comment early Monday morning. However, behind the scenes, one MPAA exec was putting out that the study was flawed because it only showed clips and not the full movie. Not for attribution, of course.
The study was conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — the same research team that found the amount of violence in PG-13 films had tripled in the most popular movies since 1985 — and that gun violence in PG-13 movies has exceeded that in R-rated movies. It was released by the Pediatrics journal today for its November issue.
Deadline has learned that the next study the Center will undertake is the effects on children’s exposure to violent use of weapons in movies, which they say “remains surprisingly unstudied.”
The current study called “Parental Desensitization to Violence and Sex in Movies” found that the more the parents watched movie scenes containing violent and sexual content, the more their standards relaxed. Initially, parents said scenes with violence appropriate for age 16.9 years and scenes with sex appropriate for 17.2 years (averages). But after being exposed to repeated viewing, parents were downgrading those ages, deeming similar scenes appropriate for ages 13.9 for violence and 14 for sex. The study found that parents who watched movies frequently were more readily desensitized to violence.
Most Surprising Results?
While this seems like common sense, the researchers were surprised by one thing: “We were most surprised by how clear and dramatic the decline was to showing that kind of content to young people and the willingness to let their own children to see it,” said Dan Romer, associate director of the APPC and lead author of the study. The authors of the study also suggest that “our entire culture may be undergoing desensitization to violent movies with consequences that remain unknown.” One possible consequence, they said citing a 2013 study in Pediatrics, is a greater acceptance of the use of guns.
Desensitization occurs when repeated exposure to a disturbing stimulus reduces the emotional response to that content. One consequence of desensitization, they said citing a number of previous studies, is a reduction of empathy for the suffering of others and an encouragement of aggressive responses to conflict. The study states that “desensitization has also been found to transfer from fiction media to real-life violence” and they cite a 2006 study. In addition, APPC’s research found that exposure to sexual content may also lead to early sexual initiation.
Interestingly, one of the most popular films geared to the YA market is Lionsgate’s wildly successful multi-billion dollar franchise The Hunger Games which, of course, is about kids hunting and killing other kids. That was rated PG-13 by the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA). Likewise, The Wolf Of Wall Street — which begins with an assault of coarse language of c*cksucker, f*cking, and lines like “who’s ever sucked a dog’s c*ck out of loneliness,” and “f*ck this, sh*t that, c*ck, c*nt, a**hole” — before orgies, misogyny, a father and son talking about what’s au courant in women’s “bushes”; a woman performing oral sex on one man while getting rammed from behind from another; full frontal nudity of women and a scene of a prostitute pulling a candle out of a man’s rectum — got an R-rating, something that even those who worked at the MPAA were surprised about.
It also begs the question if they say that CARA members are becoming more desensitized, aren’t filmmakers and screenwriters, and Hollywood executives also becoming that way? After all, they are watching these images over and over, too.
“That’s a good question,” said Romer. “What I think they’re doing is that they are realizing that the industry can game the system to get a PG-13 rating and if they don’t get it the first time, they tweak the movie and make as little change as possible. What’s going for them is that if you watch the movie the second time, they go from an R to a PG-13 just in the second time they watch it.”
He says that in Canada, a lot of these PG-13 movies would get a PG-14. “If you see what we give a rating to in comparison with other countries … for instance, Taken 2 here was PG-13 but in other countries it was deemed for much older audiences. In Canada, they gave it a 14+ rating,” he said.
One interesting part of the study (yes, I read the entire thing), was that older parents were shown to be less subject to desensitization. Like, say, someone of filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s age.
Not long after 20 children and six educators were massacred in Newtown, CT, Deadline learned that Spielberg went to D.C. to talk to the MPAA about the possibility of establishing a PG-15 rating that would have scrapped the existing PG-13 rating and replace it with one in which parents are “strongly cautioned” that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 15.” But when I called to find out where that stood this past January, I was told by an MPAA executive that “the nation’s theater owners don’t want to confuse the public and don’t want become police officers,” but the executive added, “a 15-year-old today is different than the 15-year-old from the 1970s.”
The APPC started examining sex and violence in film after the Dec. 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. A month after that slaughter, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a study of the impact of violent video games on young minds and immediately afterwards, the Entertainment Software Association (the video game arm of the entertainment industry), said they would welcome a “national dialogue” about this, but nothing happened.
Who was Studied
The APPC surveyed a national U.S. sample of 1,000 parents living with at least on child between 6 and 17 years old. Most of the participating parents were married and 56% were mothers. The study, which was conducted in January of 2014, was fully funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Penn. It was done, not to weigh tolerance to movie violence and sex, the study states, but to “determine whether parents … would exhibit a systematic pattern of desensitization to violent and sexual content over repeated viewing.”
How it Worked
Parents were shown three clips of movies containing violent or sexual content in succession, all of which were among the top 25 grossing movies in their year of their release. They asked parents, “How do you feel about children and adolescents viewing these films?” And, “At what age do you think it would be okay for a child to see the movie from which this clip was taken?” They gave the parents an age range of 6 to 19 years old. The clips they showed (note the particular clip for Taken 2 that was rated PG-13) can be viewed here, but here’s a description:
— Tom Cruise shoots a man in the head at point blank range in Collateral (R-rated, 2004)
— a guy shooting a man the back after being threatened by Liam Neeson with a gun in his face in the action thriller Taken 2 (PG13-rated, 2012)
— a non-stop shoot ’em up with machine guns involving Bruce Willis in Die Hard (R-rated, 1988)
— Willis shooting multiple bullets into two people in the DVD version of Live Free or Die Hard (unrated, 2007)
— Linda Hamilton crushing the cyborg in The Terminator (R-rated, 1984)
— Christian Bale being tossed by a cyborg and then shooting it with a machine gun in Terminator: Salvation (PG-13, 2009).
Sex Movie Clips
For the sex scenes, the clips (which you can view here) included:
— the sex scene between Brittany Murphy and Eminen in 8 Mile (R-rated, 2002)
— and between Italian actress Caterina Murino and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (PG-13, 2006),
Interestingly, the age of the child played a stronger role than the age of the parent for both violence and sex with parents being less restrictive for older children. Parents of all ages were more likely to consider their children’s age and gender when asked about sex and recommended more restrictions when they had older or female kids.
Another conclusion of the study was that parents who had seen 11 or more movies in the last week before taking the survey rated the first movie clip as suitable for those 16 years old and the final clip suitable for 12 year olds vs. those who were not frequent moviegoers, which found them more suitable for older kids. Parents actually became less disturbed by violence and sexual content they more they viewed it.
This is also consistent with another study, the APPC points out — that of a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that took place in 2007 which also queried over 1,000 parents to find that they were less concerned about their children’s exposure to sex and violence over a year-to-year period.