Researchers have criticized the rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America after finding that violent film characters tend to glorify "risky behaviors" like sex and drug use, regardless of the rating a film has been granted.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a study released on Monday, looked at the top-selling movies in Variety’s annual box office list from 1985 to 2010 to determine the behaviors exhibited by violent characters.
“Smoking, drinking, sex – these are all things that when young people watch this in the movies, they are more likely to initiate those behaviors,” said Dan Romer, one of the study’s authors and associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
The study shows that there was little difference in the amount of violence between PG-13 and R-rated movies. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to an R-rated movie. A PG-13 rating does not prohibit people under 13 from watching the film.
“The similarity in levels of co-occurrence between PG-13 and R-rated movies is troubling, and yet it is consistent with research on the questionable effectiveness of the ratings system as a tool to shield youth from inappropriate content,” the study said. “The reliability and validity of the movie ratings system are problematic, and its usefulness for parents limited.”
Over the 25-year period, the frequency of violent and sexual content occurring together remained stable. The most dramatic change over time was for tobacco use, which sharply declined, appearing in 68% of the films in 1985 and just 21.4% of films in 2010. Alcohol use also dropped from 89.6% in 1985 to 67.3% in 2010. The researchers defined violence as "intentional acts (eg to cause harm, to coerce, or for fun) where the aggressor makes or attempts to make some physical contact that has potential to inﬂict injury or harm.”
The co-occurrence of risky behaviors with violent actions has not been examined in scientific literature before, and Romer hopes more studies will examine the effects on young filmgoers.
“Since we know that adolescents are likely to imitate other behaviors, it might make violence look a little more acceptable if there’s really no difference between the good guys and the bad guys,” said Romer.
The study points out that a causal connection has not been reached about the impact of movie violence on adolescents, but Romer believes it could have a negative effect on young people.
The MPAA said a PG-13 rating is “a strong warning to parents” and that the words located under the rating, known as the descriptors, provide details about the specific elements in the film that caused the agency to give it that ranking.
“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,” a spokesperson for the MPAA said. “Societal standards change over time and the rating system is built to change with them.”
The study was posted online in the journal Pediatrics, which also published a study this month documenting the dramatic increase in gun violence in PG-13 movies.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk