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Parents Become Less Sensitive to Violence and Sex in Movies: Study

Parents can become less sensitive to violence and sex in movies after watching only a few scenes with disturbing content, according to a study published in Pediatrics that was conducted by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Parents viewed three brief pairs of movie scenes featuring either violent or sexual content. After seeing the first movie clip, the parents thought the minimum age on average to see a movie with that content should be 16.9 years old for violence or 17.2 years old for sex. After watching the sixth and final scene, the parents were more willing to let younger teens see the movies, 13.9 years for violence and 14 years for sex – lowering the minimum age by three years or more.

“We know these scenes are somewhat disturbing to parents,” said Dan Romer, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and the study’s lead author. “When they first see them, they say you shouldn’t let someone younger than 17 see them – which is comparable to an R rating. But they get more and more accepting of that content as they’re watching it.”

The study “Parental Desensitization to Violence and Sex in Movies,” will be published in the November 2014 issue of Pediatrics. It was made available online on Oct. 20. The findings were based on an online study of 1,000 parents who have children from ages 6 to 17. The movie scenes came from popular films targeted at youth (PG-13), rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) or unrated in DVD versions.

The study comes as scenes of sex and violence become more prevalent in movies aimed at youth. A 2013 study in Pediatrics from APPC researchers showed that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 movies tripled in the most popular movies since 1985. That study also found that the amount of gun violence in popular PG-13 movies in 2012 actually exceeded that in popular R-rated movies. Another APPC study in Pediatrics in 2013 found that movie violence was associated with sex and alcohol use as often in PG-13 as R-rated movies.

The possible effect on movie raters

The authors noted that people who rate movies for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who are themselves parents, could be subject to the same desensitization “and thus more likely to be lenient when it comes to evaluating the appropriateness of such content for children.” The study said this effect could help to explain the “ratings creep” that has allowed more violence into films aimed at youth.

Parents in the study viewed scenes from six of these eight movies: “8 Mile” (2002, rated R); “Casino Royale” (2006, PG-13); “Collateral” (2004, R); “Taken 2” (2012, PG-13); “Die Hard” (1988, R); “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007, unrated DVD); “The Terminator” (1984, R); and “Terminator Salvation” (2009, PG-13). The movie clips can be seen here.

For the complete news release, click here. The Pediatrics abstract and full study are here.

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