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Violence in Movies: More, Bigger—Worse

Study in December Pediatrics violence in PG13 movies has tripled

Films are getting more violent—more than twice as violent as they were in 1950. That’s perhaps no surprise. But new evidence has revealed that the most violent films are actually the ones aimed right at kids.

When the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1985, the amount of gun violence in movies that had earned that rating was similar to that in movies rated G and PG. Since then, however, violence in PG-13 films has tripled, and according to a new study published in the December issue of Pediatrics, has now surpassed the levels and amount of violence in films given the R rating. PG-13 films, the study’s authors found, feature more gun violence per hour than R films, with guns occurring more than twice an hour on average. The upshot: More (and younger) kids are being exposed to more, and more extreme, violent scenes.

R movies are, of course, technically not open to younger viewers, unless they’ve got an adult with them. PG-13, on the other hand, is merely a suggestion issued by the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board. And because the rating opens up a film to the widest possible audience, it’s also one of the industry’s most profitable. Last year, PG-13 films took in more than twice as much money as R-rated films, even when there were 33 percent more R-rated films released. Six of the top 10 films that year, including the top four, were rated PG-13, two of them based on superhero stories and one of them The Hunger Games a film based, of course, on a young adult fiction series.

Advocates for guns in movies may say that violent movies don’t kill people—people kill people— which sounds eerily like the NRA’s platform. But is that true? We know that exposure to excessive violence can increase aggressive attitudes, behaviors and values, particularly in children. A much-cited 2010 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin even found that the sight or depiction of a gun can make people behave more aggressively. The study’s authors called this the “weapons effect,” and it’s consistent in both angry and non-angry people. By including guns in violent scenes, the Pediatrics study’s authors argued, film producers may be providing youth with scripts for using guns—and strengthening the weapons effect.

Providing youth with scripts—it may not be all that far off. Last week, two boys—one 20 and one 14—ice skating at Bryant Park’s crowded outdoor rink were shot by a third man in a conflict over a coat. The incident was eerily similar to one that took place last January in which a Manhattan 16-year-old was shot and killed in his Lower East Side neighborhood after he refused to hand over his jacket. Also last week, a Denver SWAT team cornered two alleged gunmen in an empty middle school, and discovered two 15-year-old boys wielding BB guns. Meanwhile, the National Association of School Psychologists reports that the majority of teens murdered are killed with a gun, and nearly half of all suicide deaths involve the use of a gun. Is it any wonder that, in a survey conducted by online journal Stage of Life, 46 percent of teens reported “usually feeling safe, but sometimes I don’t” at school?

Another thing we know: Continuous exposure to extreme violence, like the kind exaggeratedly fictionalized in the movies, can begin to desensitize kids to such violence. In Reducing School Violence Through Conflict Resolution, authors David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson cite “how society has redefined violence as normal and acceptable” as among the reasons violence among teens has steadily increased. Consider here the fact that the G rating in movies is all but extinct. 2013 saw just a handful of films rated G in part, as a Today report noted, kids these days “expect a little more.” And more, it seems, is what Hollywood will give them.

And yet, while the ratings system likely needs to be reviewed—if sex warrants an R rating so, too, should extreme violence—ultimately, it’s up to parents to monitor what their kids watch. This includes thoroughly investigating PG-13 movies before introducing them to kids under 13 and, given the evidence, perhaps beyond that age as well. Keep in mind that as all PG-13 movies are not made equal, neither are children, who mature at different rates and have different sensitivities, so make a decision based on your individual child. And continuously talk with them about the difference between fiction and fact, fantasy and reality, what’s a movie and what’s real life. The older they get, the more obvious it may seem to them, but it’s a conversation you really can’t overdo.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

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