The presence of gun violence in films rated PG-13 has tripled since the rating was invented in 1985, according to a new study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University, VU University - a Dutch school - and the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"When the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1985, [PG-13 rated movies] had the same level of gun violence of PG and G movies — so basically none – and then it skyrockets," says Ohio State's Brad Bushman, who conceived the study with Anneberg's Dan Romer.
Their study, prompted by December's Sandy Hook school shootings, looked at a random 15 film sampling of the top 30 grossing films each year since 1985 and analyzed the number of segments with violence in general and those that specifically feature guns. Researchers fashioned the study with the weapons effect – research that has shown exposure to images of weapons can increase aggression - in mind.
While Bushman, Romer and other scientists have conducted numerous studies on the rise of violent content in films, this is the first study to focus particularly on gun violence. (It excluded scenes with sports shooting or large armaments like cannons.)
The study found that G, PG,and R-rated films exhibited no trends over this period, a stark contrast to the PG-13 rated film findings, where gun violence tripled, eclipsing the amount gun violence in R rated films. Using an extended archive from 1950 of top-grossing films, the study also found violence in general has increased four fold.
"Since 2012 gun violence in PG-13 movies is significantly higher than gun violence R rated movies," Bushman says. "That's a big problem for several reasons: One is PG-13 movies are especially attractive to youth."
While R movies require -- to varying success -- that children under the age of 17 be accompanied by an adult, PG-13 films are open to ticket buyers of all ages, with or without adult supervision. According to Motion Picture Association of America guidelines, "There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence."
While PG-13 movies have become notably more violent both generally and in terms of gun violence, the MPAA has held a tough line when rating films R rather than PG-13 when it comes to sexual content and profanities. While films like the upcoming "Philomena" – about an elderly Irish woman in search of her long lost son – may be stamped with an R rating for one too many curse words (two F-bombs in "Philomena," specifically) or sexual content, other excessively violent action films, like this summer's "Man of Steel," continue to garner PG-13 ratings often bringing in blockbuster audiences, many of them of the younger set.
"When they put films that have sex in the R category but movies with all this gun violence in the PG-13 category, they're sort of saying, 'Sex is really harmful, but shooting people really isn't,'" Romer says.
The role violent media such as video games, television shows and movies in mass shootings perpetrated by young people has been a topic of hot debate with each consecutive tragic massacre. Gun control advocates worry that the focus on violent media distracts from the issue of tougher regulation of firearms. Either way, lawmakers are limited in what they can do to curb violence in media. The researchers behind the study, which is being published in the online journal Pediatrics, hope their findings will raise the issue for pediatricians and parents to discuss, as well as put pressure on the industry to re-examine their ratings.
"In this case, the ratings are not so helpful, because if the parents see a PG-13 movie they think, 'That's not so bad,'" Bushman says. "But actually the violence is higher than in R films."