Parents say that on screen gun violence, even when it appears justified in PG-13 movies, are more suitable for teens 15 years old and older, according to a study by researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center out of Philadelphia published today. A PG-13 rating from the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) currently means that parents are strongly cautioned as some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
What researchers found is that parents are more willing to let their children see PG-13 movies with intense gun violence when the violence appears to be “justified,” used in defense of a loved one or for self-protection, than when it has no socially redeeming purpose (or “unjustified”).
But even when the gun violence in PG-13 movies appears “justified,” parents say that those movies are more suitable for teens age 15 and up. Parents thought movies with “unjustified” but bloodless gun violence were more appropriate for 16-year-olds, the study finds.
The APPC researchers did the study via what they are calling “an online experiment” in which they played movie clips to a national sample of 610 parents who have at least one child between the ages 6 and 17. Parents viewed a series of four 90-second clips of either “justified” or “unjustified” violence from popular movies. The scenes of “justified” violence came from the PG-13 movies Live Free or Die Hard (2007), White House Down (2013), Terminator Salvation (2009), and Taken (2008).
The clips of “unjustified” violence came from the PG-13 movies Skyfall (2012) and Jack Reacher (2012) and the R-rated films Sicario (2015) and Training Day (2001).
Scenes from the R-rated movies were edited to remove graphic and potentially upsetting consequences such as blood and suffering to mimic the effect of PG-13 movies. (” The more restricted R rating means viewers under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult.)
The study, “Parental Desensitization to Gun Violence in PG-13 Movies,” was published online in the journal Pediatrics on May 14 and will be in the June issue.
“The findings suggest that parents may want a new rating, PG-15, for movies with intense violence,” said lead author Daniel Romer, research director of the APPC) “Violent movies often get a PG-13 rating by omitting the consequences of violence such as blood and suffering, and by making the use of violence seem ‘justified.’ But parents of teenagers say that even scenes of justified violence are upsetting and more appropriate for teens who are at least 15.”
Romer told Deadline that the study took about a year from when they pre-tested the clips to make sure the ones they selected were seen as ‘justified’ or not and gathering together an audience that was sample of parents of all races with small children 6 to 9, 10 to 12 and 13 to 17.
“A lot of the justified violence is seen as protecting their family members. In Taken, Liam Neeson was seen as a good person trying to save his family. A good example of the ‘unjustiffied’ is the Denzel Washington character in Training Day. The clip we showed was the drug dealer tied up, sitting in a chair and (the Denzel character) asks his his trainee (Ethan Hawke) to shoot him. It’s clear that another person in the same situation would not do that. So the recruit says why would I do that? and (the Denzel character) picks up the gun and shoots him,” said Romer. “We used the same kind of scene from Skyfall where James Bond is having a gun held on him and he is told to shoot a woman and he also refuses and so the bad guy picks up the gun and shoots her. Those are more upsetting to parents. They are also saying that an adolescent of age 16 would be more appropriate to watch that.”
This comes after previous studies that have found that gun violence in the most popular PG-13 movies has more than doubled since the rating was introduced in 1984, and now exceeds the gun violence in comparable R-rated films. In the earliest years of the PG-13 rating, less than a third of the 30 top-grossing movies were rated PG-13, but recently more than half were PG-13. In past research on the growing acceptance of gun violence in PG-13 films, APPC researchers found that parents appeared to become desensitized to violence as they watched successive movie clips.
It also comes after a study from the APPC in 2014, found that both 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.”
The current experiment was designed to understand whether parents became more accepting of the movie violence because they were being emotionally numbed to it or whether the justification for the violence influenced them. They were investigating the questions: Could “justified” violence be less upsetting than “unjustified” violence? And could parents who repeatedly saw the kind of bloodless, “justified” violence featured in PG-13 movies become so accustomed to it that they experience a kind of “normative desensitization” that leads to greater acceptance of its viewing by children?
Instead of being emotionally desensitized, the study shows, parents grew increasingly upset as they watched the succession of movie clips, whether the violence was “justified” or not. But parents were less upset by the”justified” violence and more lenient in deciding the appropriate age for a child to watch it. Most of the parents said the movies with “justified” violence were suitable starting at age 15, while the movies with “unjustified” violence were appropriate starting at age 16.
There was one exception, according to the study: The parents who were frequent moviegoers were the most permissive, saying that movies with “unjustified” violence were suitable for 13-year-olds.
As parents watched the series of movie scenes of “unjustified” gun violence, they became more restrictive on the appropriate age for viewing, the study found. But that wasn’t true with the “justified” scenes of violence, where parents’ opinion of the appropriate viewing age held steady.
The APPC researchers also found that when watching the successive “justified” movie clips, parents increasingly regarded the gun violence itself as “justified.”
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a body of research showing that viewing violent media content can influence some youth to become more aggressive.
Annenberg also pointed out that a recent study by Ohio State University researchers found that children 8 to 12 years old who saw scenes of a PG-rated movie with guns played longer with a real gun and pulled the trigger more often than children who saw a movie without guns.
“Despite such evidence, we still don’t know whether repeatedly seeing movies with ‘justified’ violence teaches children that using guns is OK if they think it’s ‘justified,’” Romer said in announcing the study. “Hollywood is exploiting the movie rating system by leaving out harmful consequences like blood and suffering from PG-13 films. By sanitizing the effects of violence, moviemakers are able to get a PG-13 rating and a wider audience for their films. But this gun violence may be just as brutal and potentially harmful to young viewers.”
For the record, reporter Anita Busch’s cousin was murdered in the Aurora mass shooting and her family was also impacted by the Las Vegas mass shooting when her brother-in-law’s niece ran for her life and survived; both of her nieces have also experienced a school lockdown.
In addition to Romer, the authors of the study are Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Patrick E. Jamieson, director of APPC’s Adolescent Health and Risk Communication Institute; Azeez Adebimpe, an APPC postdoctoral fellow; and Robert Lull, a former APPC postdoctoral fellow at California State University, Fresno.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center was founded in 1993 to educate the public and policy makers about the media’s role in advancing public understanding of political, health, and science issues at the local, state and federal levels.