When 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