What's Wrong with the Ratings?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 63

"I saw plenty of media violence when I was a child and it didn't hurt me."

"Everyone knows it's just entertainment."

"It's only a cartoon, everyone knows it's not real."

"As long as I go to the movies with my kids, it's OK."

If you follow the public debates over media violence, you may be familiar with arguments like these. Made by adults from an adult perspective, they dismiss and discredit the problem of media violence for children. But I suspect few of these complacent critics understand how a child really sees the violence in a movie like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or a video game such as "Sonic the Hedgehog." Most adults find it difficult to remember their childhood reactions to media. Fewer still can analyze them.

This lack of understanding becomes a huge problem in crafting -- or even evaluating -- ratings systems designed to protect children from the effects of violence on movies and, increasingly, on television. In fact, analysis of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film ratings system -- the familiar G, GP, R and N-17 that appear in ads and movie reviews -- demonstrates that it is based on several faulty assumptions about children's responses to violence in media.

How Does A Film Get a Rating

As a system of self regulation by the motion picture industry, the MPAA rating program was designed to measure parental reactions. Jack Valenti, MPAA president, has noted that the MPAA is concerned with finding out what "most American parents will think about film content."

The ratings are established by a board of seven Los Angeles area parents -- real mothers and fathers -- whose fulltime paid job is to review films. Its membership is not intentionally selected to include educators, childhood development experts or others with special training in the effects of media on children.

Films are submitted violuntarily by studios and producers that pay a fee for the service. Unsubmitted films -- usually international productions and some independent efforts -- are usually reviewed and advertised as unrated and may be harder to market. The MPAA Ratings Board examines each individual film in terms of theme, language, nudity, sex, drug use and violence. Informing parents is important to the MPAA. But it is also clear that the rating system's main purpose is defusing public criticism and protecting the film industry from government intervention.

Unfortunately, the MPAA's preoccupation with what is offensive to adults comes at the expense of what is arguably a more important question: What types of portrayals are really harmful to children?

In light of social science research on the effects of medial portrayals on young viewers, there are several problems with the current MPAA rating categories:


  • Age division.
    The MPAA rating system divides viewers into three broad age ranges: 0-13 years, 13-17 years and over 17. Such a broad classification ignores the critical changes in learning and evaluation that occur during the preteen years. Currently, movies that are rated as G or PG are deemed appropriate for any child under 13, without recognizing that a five-year-old, for example, is likely to respond quite differently than a 12-year-old to a violent or sexual portrayal.



  • Older vs. younger.
    Current rating categories also assume that all films are more problematic for younger than for older children. For instance, the PG-13 rating indicates that some films may be seen by older children but should not be seen by those under 13. Yet research indicates that certain media depictions, such as teenage characters who engage in realistic aggression, are likely to be more problematic for an older child. Preteen viewers who are typically interested in motives and searching for role models might be more inclined to imitate the behaviors seen than a younger child who doesn't yet grasp the complexity of how motivation affects action.



  • Context of violence.
    The rating scheme focuses primarily on the amount of violence and its explicitness, while ignoring how the violence is portrayed. The context of the violence, such as the nature of the perpetrator and whether the violence is justified (i.e, self defense), are important determinants of the impact of media violence.


Moreover, many of these features will affect children differently depending upon their individual level of cognitive development, that is, their ability to reason, to recognize consequences and to separate reality from fantasy. These distinctions are hardly simple; in fact they are quite complex and vary widely from child to child. But they must be considered when labeling films or television programs. An extensive review of social science research on children's response to media portrayals undertaken by myself and my colleagues at the University of California/Santa Barbara in 1990 provides a number of clues.

Children Are Different

Do children react to media violence? The answer to this question is more complex than a simple yes or no. It depends upon the emotional maturity and the level of learning ability of each child. Most parents of two or more children know how much children's abilities and understanding can vary even at the same age, and a year or two of development creates broad differences.

Certainly any parent who has taken two young children to even a mildly scary movie like Snow White or The Wizard of Oz has observed very different reactions. A six-year-old may be enthralled, while a three-year-old hides under the seat. A 13-year-old may be fascinated by the tension and special effects of Jurassic Park, while its portrayal of realistic and merciless dinosaurs would terrify a younger sister or brother.

Recent research on child development has provided us with a much greater understanding of the progressive changes in children's cognitive abilities that occur during the preteen years. Most studies find that preschoolers and children in the early grades differ from older elementary school children not only in what they know but in how they think about the world. For our purposes, then, we should classify children into two broad categories according to cognitive development: younger children, roughly ages three to seven, and older children, ages eight to 12.

Some of the differences between the two groups apply directly to the effects of violence portrayals. The following points should be kept in mind:


  • Younger children are more dependent on appearances than older children. Their thoughts are tied closely to surface features of a character or object such as how it looks or sounds. ET's physical appearance frightened some younger children.



  • Older children are able to consider more conceptual aspects of the same character.
    While a younger child is likely to focus primarily on a character's physical appearance or actions (Roadrunner has a long tail and goes Beep-beep), an older child is able to move beyond appearances and consider the character's motives and words (Roadrunner escapes while Wile E. Coyote falls off the cliff).



  • Older children can distinguish reality from fantasy.
    A young child is apt to attribute life and realism to any character who looks real. Consequently, Ninja Turtles, Big Bird and many other animal figures, whether animated or not, are perceived as real so long as they appear to act like humans. As they mature, children gradually develop the ability to compare media depictions to real life. First they attribute realism to anything that is possible in real life. Later they attribute realism only to those depictions that are probable based on their own experience.



  • Older children are better at drawing inferences.
    The ability to form opinions and draw conclusions from data is essential to the understanding of media portrayals. Research suggests that younger children are less able than older children to integrate pieces of information together from stories and narrations, and then to draw inferences from the information. Consequently, linking different scenes together to make sense of the plot can be particularly difficult for younger children, especially if the scenes are not in close in proximity or are out of chronological order.


Context of Violence

Many people complain about the amount of violence on television and in the movies. Perhaps more important than the sheer volume of violent actions, though, is the way in which even a small amount of violence is portrayed. The context of violence is a critical determinant of whether a particular portrayal will have a harmful effect. Contextual features help to explain why a movie like "Rambo: First Blood II" is more objectionable than a movie about the Holocaust, even though both may contain explicit depictions of violence. Research has identified four aspects of the context in which media violence appears. Each takes on special importance when considering the developmental level of the child viewer.


  • Reward and punishment.
    Portrayals in which violent characters benefit from their actions are most likely to produce harmful effects on child viewers. Characters who receive money, popularity or praise for violent acts can encourage aggressive attitudes and imitative behavior in child viewers. Characters need not be explicitly rewarded for such effects to occur. As long as there is no punishment associated with a violent act, young viewers have been shown to imitate such depictions. Unfortunately, much of dramatized violence on TV and in movies is conveyed without negative consequences; neither perpetrators nor victims suffer much and the perpetrator is often rewarded for antisocial behavior.


    Although both younger and older children are influenced by the reward and punishment of violent characters, children at different stages of development will respond differently to the timing of these elements of the plot. In many scenarios, a character receives rewards immediately after performing an aggressive act. For example, the Joker in "Batman" evades the authorities throughout the movie and even gains the attention of a pretty woman. Only in the end is he captured and punished. As mentioned, younger children are less able to link scenes together and draw inferences from them. Thus, for movies in which rewards are immediate and punishment is delayed, younger children are more likely to see the violence as sanctioned and thus acceptable.


  • Reality of violence.
    Another important feature is the degree of realism associated with a violent portrayal. Research indicates that naturalistic violence is more likely to be imitated and used as a guide for behavior. However, in this case the influence of realism is more critical for older, not younger, children. Because older children are better able to distinguish reality from fantasy, they will be affected more by movies, such as "Karate Kid" and "Rocky," that feature violent acts that are humanly possible. In contrast, younger children respond to both fantasy and realism, making cartoons that contain animated violent characters, like "The Transformers: The Movie," just as problematic for them as more realistic depictions.



  • Justified violence.
    A third aspect of the reaction to violence is the degree to which it is presented as justified or defensible in a given situation. Violent actions that are seen as an appropriate response by the characters performing them are more likely to be imitated by all ages of viewers.


    A common theme in many programs is the hero who is forced to be violent because his job demands it or because he must retaliate against an enemy. The popular turtle heroes in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" are a good example. Their message may be ultimately pro-social but the point is conveyed through script twists that make the violence appear justified. Research suggests that both younger and older children can be confused by such mixed signals. However, because of their perceptual limitations, youger children are particularly susceptible. As many parents have learned, younger children were more likely to focus on the Turtles' violent behavior (Ninja chops) which is concrete and easy to see, than on their invisible and more abstract "good" cause.


  • Perception of the character.
    A fourth contextual cue concerns the nature of the character who acts aggressively. Children are more likely to watch closely and imitate characters who are similar to themselves. Thus, violent movies that feature young perpetrators are more problematic than programs involving violent adults. In addition, the particular age of the perpetrator is important. Younger children are more likely to be attracted to child actors like Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone 2." Older children will be more strongly influenced by preteen and teen characters such as those in the G-rated "Free Willy" and such R-rated films as "Colors" or "Boyz 'n the Hood" that they may see on video or cable.


How Ratings Can Work Better According to this analysis, an effective ratings category structure should examine movies and films in the light of these four context areas. Ratings categories also need to determine the age groups most likely to be affected. In general, I recommend at least two categories, roughly three to seven and eight to 12. A separate category for adolescents would recognize both their more fully developed sensibilities and their likelihood of identifying with and modeling the actions of teenage or young adult characters. An effective system would also have to take special note of the impact of violence, horror and sexuality on young viewers.

The subtleties of these developmental differences and their complex interaction with media make the current five-category MPAA ratings system highly questionable. They also make the task of ratings reform far from easy. But I do not believe they make it impossible.

Above all else, those of us who are struggling to reform ratings or find other remedies to the problem of media violence must consider the varying capacities of children. We must recognize that all children are different. We must also remember that younger children perceive the world differently than older children, who in turn think differently than adults. Losing sight of this important principle is to lose sight of those we are trying to protect.

Author Bio: 

Barbara J. Wilson, Ph.D., is Professor and Head of the Department of Speech Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before joining the University of Illinois, she was on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara for 12 years. Her research focuses on the social and psychological effects of the mass media, particularly on children. She is co-author of CHILDREN, ADOLESCENTS, AND THE MEDIA (Sage Publications, 2002) and three book volumes of the National Television Violence Study (Sage Publications, 1997-1998). Professor Wilson has also published over 50 articles and chapters on the impact of media on youth.