Gun violence in movies rated PG-13, a designation advising that material may be unsuitable for children younger than 13, has more than tripled since the rating was introduced in 1985, a study found.
The findings are troubling, researchers said, because youth are increasingly exposed to gun violence in top-selling movies; those rated PG-13 represent more than half of top-grossing film revenue, according to today’s study in the journal Pediatrics. Since 2009, PG-13 films have contained as much as or more violence than R-rated films, the authors said.
Research since the 1960s has shown that the “mere presence of guns can increase aggression,” the authors wrote in the study. Some children may be more vulnerable to the effects of repeated exposure to gun violence, and may think using weapons to express anger is more acceptable after seeing their use in movies, said Dan Romer, a study author and director of adolescent communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia.
“Rampant gun violence is still PG-13,” Romer said in a telephone interview. “At the minimum, this is sending a wrong message, and possibly it’s having an influence on vulnerable kids, who see this as a way to show resentment.”
PG-13 movies today are more easily found on cable television and the Internet, the authors wrote. While no increase in gun violence was found in R-rated movies, it has grown “considerably,” in PG-13 films, the authors wrote.
The Motion Picture Association of America’s system includes five ratings. G is for general audiences, while PG suggests parental guidance. PG-13 says some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13, and R requires an adult to accompany moviegoers younger than 17. Films with NC-17 ratings shouldn’t be shown to teens younger than 18.
“We’re recommending the MPAA treat violence like sex,” Romer said. “Just give it an R. We see no reason to allow gun violence in PG-13 films.”
In 2012, the level of gun violence in PG-13 films exceeded that of R-rated films, the study found.
Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the MPAA, didn’t respond to calls left on her office and mobile telephones seeking comment on the study.
Researchers on today’s paper used a database of 945 films that were sampled from the 30 top-grossing movies as ranked by Variety magazine for each year from 1950 to 2012. About 94 percent of the 420 films since 1985 had at least one 5-minute segment containing violence. Those segments were then coded to see if they contained gun violence other than that of hunting animals and target practice.
The paper suggests the effects of weapons and violence in films can incite aggression that mimics brutal fantasies unfolding on the screen, “as if following a script from a movie.” As an example, the paper cited James Holmes, who in July 2012 bought a ticket to a Batman movie called “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. About 20 minutes after the movie started, Holmes left and returned, carrying guns and ammunition, and fired into the crowd, killing 12 people and injuring 70. He may have been mimicking the Joker, a villain in Batman, Romer said.
This July, lawyers for Holmes said their client was “in the throes of a psychotic episode” when he committed the crime. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.