Major PG-13 films are often at least as likely as R-rated films to depict gun violence, according to a new analysis published in Pediatrics, the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. And increasingly often, they are more likely to do so.
What led to this phenomenon? Researchers behind the study believe that the reason for the rise of gun violence in PG-13 films is best attributed to the recent popularity of superhero movies, which scrape by with a PG-13 rating because they exist in fantastical worlds that make violence seem less serious.
But troublingly, academics still aren’t sure how any violence portrayed in this kind of film might influence a child’s behavior when compared to the more realistic violence that earns a film an R rating.
The analysis, which was performed at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, is an update to a previous look into gun violence in film. For the study, the researchers dissected top-grossing films, determining the rate of gun violence per hour in each of them. They found that in six of the last 10 years, the rate of gun violence in PG-13 films exceeded the rate in R-rated films.
“We were interested in seeing if the trend might have stalled or even reversed,” Dan Romer, research director of the center and lead author of the article, said in a release.
Instead, “that trend now seems to be getting worse,” he told The Huffington Post.
A PG-13 rating, which, unlike a R rating, means minors can watch without an adult ― was first introduced in the mid-1980s after Steven Spielberg’s suggestion. The ratings step between PG and R was meant to signal a film that wasn’t explicitly violent or lewd but wasn’t exactly “family friendly,” either. In the three decades since then, the percentage of hit films with a PG-13 rating has skyrocketed. The study found that from 1985–1987, 29 percent of the top-30 domestic grossing films were rated PG-13. Today that number has risen to 51 percent.
At the same time, PG-13 films have consistently involved higher and higher levels of gun violence as well, according to the study. The below chart from APPC graphs the rise of gun violence in PG-13 films between 1985 and 2015 against the average amount of gun violence in R-rated films over the same period.
The steady rise of gun violence in PG-13 films over the past decade, researchers believe, is due to the ever-increasing number of superhero- and comic book-based films. According to Romer, such films often earn a PG-13 rating not only because events depicted therein often exist within fantasy worlds, but also because these films tend to gloss over the actual consequences of shooting a gun, like “blood and suffering.”
The primary question, from a policy perspective, then becomes: Can gun violence affect children’s behavior regardless of whether it occurs in superhero movies?
Joan Graves, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board, has implied in the past that violence within these more fantastical PG-13 films is less likely to influence children’s behavior because they are unrealistic. But little research has actually been completed to support such a hypothesis.
“As a result, moviegoing families are now undergoing an experiment in which children of any age can enter a theater to watch a PG-13 film in which the protagonists gain power, settle conflicts, and kill or are killed by lethal weapons,” the APPC researchers note in their analysis.
While little research has been done to compare fantastical violence to more realistic depictions of violence in movies, significant amounts of research have been done on the link between media violence and child aggression. A 2016 review of hundreds of studies (also published in Pediatrics) found “a significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior.”
When asked about the correlation between media violence and violent behavior, the MPAA referred HuffPost to Jonathan Freedman. A professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, Freedman received funding from the MPAA for a book that once argued there was little evidence that media violence caused more aggressive behavior in children.
Over the phone, Freedman argued there was evidence of a small correlation ― rather than causation ― between the consumption of media violence and a child’s aggressive behavior. But he also admitted he did not know of any research that backed up the hypothesis that fantastical depictions of violence in movies were less affecting than more realistic depictions in R-rated films or the news.
The lack of an answer to that exact question is why Romer argues in his analysis that additional research is necessary.
“We have a gun violence problem in this country. It’s a major public health problem. And we spend virtually nothing to study it,” he said. “And this is one of the things we should be studying: What’s the impact on kids [when] a 5-year-old goes to see a PG-13 movie with ‘harmless’ gun violence? What are they going to do when they see a gun lying around in the house?”
In a statement provided to HuffPost, MPAA spokesperson Chris Ortman noted that the purpose of the MPAA’s ratings system is not “to prescribe social policy ... but instead to reflect the current values of the majority of American parents.”
“This system has withstood the test of time because, as American parents’ sensitivities change, so too does the rating system,” he added. “Elements such as violence, language, drug use, and sexuality are continually re-evaluated through surveys and focus groups to mirror contemporary concern and to better assist parents in making the right family viewing choices.”
So unless the violence in PG-13 rated films begins to bother parents so much that they start calling up the MPAA to complain, it is likely there to stay.