Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen Jim was 12 or 13, he seemed to want to watch almost every R-rated movie that came out. PG-13 movies were okay, and PG and G-rated movies were beneath his dignity. Was he simply interested in these movies because they were forbidden (as we contended), or was he somehow more drawn to the content of movies that happened to carry an R rating (as he insisted)?

To further complicate matters, there are separate ratings systems for TV, movies, video games, music, and even web sites. With such an array of ratings systems, are parents actually aware of what each rating means?

There’s been surprisingly little study of ratings systems — either of parents’ understanding of them or children’s reaction to them. But in 2003, after an exhaustive search of the literature, Brad Bushman and Joanne Cantor did manage to compile a assessment of the few dozen studies that have addressed these questions.

First they looked at U.S. parents’ understanding of the ratings systems. While about 80 percent of parents use the MPAA’s ratings system, the number drops precipitously for TV ratings, where as few as 39 percent of parents said they used them. When quizzed about the exact meanings of TV ratings, parents fared even worse, with only 18 percent recognizing that “FV” in a TV rating had something to do with violence (it actually stands for “Fantasy Violence”), and 5 percent understanding that “D” stood for dialog with sexual intent or innuendo.

There are two major types of media content ratings: “Evaluative” ratings, which recommend age limits (like PG and NC-17), and “content” indicators, which describe the actual content of the media (like S: sex or V: violence). Several studies reviewed by Bushman and Cantor asked parents which type of ratings they preferred, and content indicators were the overwhelming favorite.

This makes some sense, since some parents might object to their kids viewing sex but not violence, or vice-versa. But there’s another factor that may come into play here. If kids like Jim seem motivated to see a particular movie or play a game because of its restrictive rating — because seeing an R-rated movie or playing an M-rated game makes them feel cooler or more mature — then perhaps content ratings don’t have the same effect. They may not seem so much like “forbidden fruit,” and therefore wouldn’t be as appealing.

So Bushman and Cantor took a look at a new set of studies exploring whether a more restrictive rating made a movie more appealing to kids. Combining the data from 18 studies, they came up with this:


A positive effect size indicates a correlation between more restrictive ratings and interest in seeing/using the media. For kids younger than 8, there was a small negative effect — they were less interested in seeing more restrictive-rated media. But for older kids and young adults, a more restrictive rating made the media more appealing. Interestingly, for adults in their late 30s and older, more restrictive-rated media were again less appealing.

A closer look at the data revealed that the effect was almost completely found in males — the effect sizes were close to zero for females, which means for males alone the effects were around twice as large as what you see in the graph. The researchers also found that there was little difference in the response to the different types of ratings. Boys and young men were attracted both to media with more restrictive evaluative rankings and with stronger content ratings.

So Jim’s behavior in his early teens was quite typical, as is Nora’s current lack of interest in movies with lots of sex and violence. As parents, our response to the kids’ requests has been to look beyond the ratings of the media they’re interested in and try to find out more about its actual content. In this, too, apparently, we’re typical. But we agree with Bushman and Cantor, who say content ratings should be easier to understand and consistent across different media types.

Either way, it’s pretty clear that parents can’t simply look to the ratings system to discourage their kids from watching material they don’t approve of. Instead, actual parenting will be required.

Brad J. Bushman, Joanne Cantor (2003). Media ratings for violence and sex: Implications for policymakers and parents. American Psychologist, 58 (2), 130-141 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.2.130


  1. #1 khefera
    October 1, 2008

    “Instead, actual parenting will be required.”
    *gasp* ratings and censorship don’t replace actual parental involvement?

  2. #2 llewelly
    October 1, 2008

    *gasp* ratings and censorship don’t replace actual parental involvement?

    Ratings and censorship replace actual parental involvement in use. But not in function.

  3. #3 Size
    October 1, 2008

    Ratings and censorship? I thought TV, movies, and games were what were actually replacing parental involvement. The ratings are just a guide.

  4. #4 automandc
    October 1, 2008

    I enjoy video games & movies that carry restricted ratings, and was previously skeptical of the entire ratings system. However, once my children began playing games/watching TV (around age 4 each), I came to a new appreciation. Now, my concern is that the rating systems are not applied very consistently. There are some “E10” games that I have no problem letting my 7 year old play, and there are some “E10” games I won’t let him play. Similarly, I thoroughly enjoyed the new Batman movie, but I thought that it was pushing the bounds of the “PG-13” rating.

    I am also disappointed by how few “G” movies there are for kids. I don’t know why, but I feel like there were far more options for younger children when I was that age. I often open the paper and find that there is not a single “G” movie playing.

    Ultimately, the lack of consistency just reinforces the already expressed sentiment that active parenting is required — the problem is, I can’t afford to “test drive” every movie and game before letting my kids see it, so having some advanced information is useful; if the information was more “accurate” (in the sense of being consistent, since it is a subjective system) it would be even more helpful still.

  5. #5 Cody
    October 2, 2008

    I have never posted here before but have you on my google homepage. I watched a movie about ratings of movies and such ‘this film is not yet rated’ and it goes into the crazy board and rating system of movies. On another not violence is considered less bad than sex but most people would rather consider there child seening too people in love than killing each other yet less likly too want them to see the ‘Making love’.

  6. #6 ephant
    October 2, 2008

    Here in Australia we have one ratings system which covers Movies, TV & Video Games (with the exception that Video Games don’t have anything higher than a MA 15+ rating)

    We have

    G – General
    PG – Parental Guidance Recommended
    M – Mature Audience
    MA – Mature Audience (Restricted to ages 15+)
    R – Restricted (18+)

    PG and M aren’t restricted at all, the rating is just a guide. You can’t purchase an MA game if you’re under 15 (They don’t have R rated Games, this is my only real complaint about the system. Basically if the game would rate higher than MA then they don’t sell it) or get into a movie for MA or R if you’re under the age limit unless you’re accompanying a parent or guardian.

    I think there are pros over the US system – there’s only four years between 13 and 17 but there’s a big difference in maturity level. I think that M and MA fill the gap nicely.

  7. #7 AJ
    October 2, 2008

    It’s possible that there is an experience factor here that isn’t being taken into consideration, especially for people over the age of 18.

    Based on my experience, certain genres of movies are quite typically not very good at lower ratings. I can think of very few PG action movies that I want in my DVD collection, for example.

    So, knowing an action movie is rated R doesn’t increase my appeal simply because it’s “bad”, but because I know there’s an increased chance I’ll enjoy it.

  8. #8 Daryl McCullough
    October 2, 2008

    With my children, I’ve discovered that the rating system distorts the meaning of “for adults”. Recently, my wife and I rented the movie “Becoming Jane” (about Jane Austin). The children were interested in watching it, and I told them that I thought it was a movie for adults. That, of course, just made them more interested. Was it violent? Did it have naughty language? Was there sex? Was there drugs? What sorts of fun things was I trying to hide from them?

    So, I finally agreed that they could watch it. Of course they were absolutely bored stiff. I’m hoping this experience helps them to realize that “inappropriate for small children” doesn’t necessarily mean naughty pleasures.

  9. #9 marilove
    October 2, 2008

    Inconsistency is the main problem. Why did the most recent Die Hard movie only get a PG-13? That was one violent movie. But there were very few curse words, and no nudity. It amazes me that heavy violence is a-ok, but naked boobies are a huge no-no. That’s the main problem.

    Ratings can be a good guide for parents, but the practice right now makes them utterly useless.

  10. #10 Daryl McCullough
    October 2, 2008

    marilove writes: It amazes me that heavy violence is a-ok, but naked boobies are a huge no-no.

    I sort of agree, but I have heard this half-way plausible counter-argument: “If my teenage daughter sees a madman mowing down people with a machine gun or a machete, I’m 100 percent confident that she’s not going to emulate him. With scenes involving sex, on the other hand…”

  11. #11 Miko
    October 2, 2008

    I’d be interested in seeing this tested in a more subtle and simultaneously less abstract way. i.e., instead of asking for interest ratings, show fake movie previews with different “fake ratings” for each study group and ask them to rate interest in seeing the movie. This would seem to get more at the core question of whether the rating or the content is affecting interest.

  12. #12 Levi
    October 3, 2008

    I scanned through the article and wasn’t able to answer my question, so I’ll ask here.

    Did they address the possible differences in the ‘forbidden fruit’ theory when applied to different social circumstances? I do remember not being too interested in the ratings of films that I wanted (my mother or the parent’s of other children) to rent. Subconsciously, I probably knew the ratings since I did like watching action and horror films, but I certainly do not, even in reflection, remember being swayed by the ratings.

    But it does seem that the ratings of films that I saw in theaters was another matter. Being able to see something that was forbidden and where the rules were actively enforced did seem to be thrilling, since giving my mother the money to rent an R-rate film was not a challenge. The ultimate outcome would be to be able to gain admission to the theater without having a parent there, especially in the early teen years.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    October 3, 2008


    No, they didn’t address the social circumstances in this review — that would have been difficult in a meta-analysis. But it is an interesting question, I agree with that.

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