Violent characters in films are just as likely to engage in risky behaviors like sex, tobacco and alcohol use in PG-13 movies as they are in R rated films, an Annenberg Public Policy Center study finds.
According the study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, more than three-quarters of the films examined – a sample of 390 films taken from the top-grossing movies between 1985 and 2010 – portrayed main characters engaging in violence and at least one other risky behavior: sex, tobacco or alcohol use. While G and PG films exhibited a lower level of sex and alcohol use in conjunction with violence, their presence in PG-13 and R movies was statistically the same, the study found.
According to Annenberg's Adolescent Communication Institute Director Daniel Romer, who wrote the study with Amy Bleakley and Patrick E. Jamieson, violence in general has been on the rise in popular movies. (Main characters engaged in violence in 90 percent of the films sampled for the study.)
"We wanted to see what else was overlapping with that, because violent characters are very noticeable to young people as well as adults," Romer says. "It's usually the reason the movies are as popular as they are."
The study found that the use of tobacco in top-grossing films has decreased significantly during the last 25 years and that alcohol use declined slightly, but that the amount of movies with sex and violence stayed about the same. It further broke down scenes that contained violence or sexual behavior on a 5 point scale from least to most explicit. It found that when it came to scenes with characters engaging in violence and explicit violence, there was no statistical difference between films rated PG-13 and R. Nor was there a statistical difference between R and PG-13 when it came to violence in conjunction with the risky behaviors measured.
The report comes on the heels of another recent study, also sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center with other institutions, that found gun violence in top grossing PG-13 films had increased so much that it had surpassed its presence in top grossing R films. Both studies call into question the effectiveness of the MPAA rating system, which says PG-13 films may have some violence given that it is "not both realistic and extreme or persistent."
While what kind of violence exceeds this limitation is murky, these and other studies have shown, the MPAA has appeared to have taken a tougher line on other aspects in its ratings systems, that also claim to take into account nudity, drug use and language. For instance, the sentimental Judi Dench film "Philomena" was initially rated R because she said the F-word twice and only dropped down to a PG-13 after the filmmakers protested the rating.
"The industry has slowly but surely allowed the PG-13 category to become more like R with a few exceptions – explicit sex and profanity," Romer says.
He adds, "It makes them look like they're being responsible when they're just allowing anyone to walk in."
While there is some research to suggest that young people who are exposed to sex, tobacco and alcohol use in film are more likely to engage those behaviors, Romer says he would like to take a deeper look in how seeing characters engaged in those behaviors who are also engaged in violence affects young viewers. "It may be glamorizing violence in another way that we haven't looked at before," he says.