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Applying Social Science Research To Film Ratings A Shift From Offensiveness To Harmful Effects

Wilson, B.J., Linz, D., & Randall, B. (1990, Fall). Applying social science research to film ratings: A shift from offensiveness to harmful effects. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronics, 34 (4), 443-468.


According to the article,

The MPAA system is based largely on estimates of what types of film content may be offensive to most parents. We identify four assumptions that underlie the current rating system and how has these assumptions are inconsistent with social science research regarding the impact of media portrayals on young viewers.

Uniting Piaget’s cognitive stages with recent modes of information processing suggests more acccurate and informative ways of rating films by their impact on younger viewers.


The combination of the expansion of cable television and the availability of videocassette recorders has made more movies available to the young, with the home as the locus of viewing and parents more involved in using the MPAA ratings as guidelines for acceptability for specific age levels. The rating system provided a way for the movie industry to “police itself” rather than have government regulate movie content. Most parents are aware of the rating system (75% know of it and its purpose), find the ratings useful (74% with children under 17), and use the ratings often or always (57%). Films are rated on the following elements: theme, language, nudity, sex, drug use, and violence; each film receives a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R, and X, but no indication of the rationale for the rating (i.e., V-violence, S-sex, and possibly SV-violence with sexual context). The article notes, “Assumptions based on offensiveness are often inconsistent with research findings on the types of content that are actually harmful to children and adolescents.”


This study considers current methods of determining ratings and proposes ones that are more informative for parents, based on what is known to be harmful to young people rather than solely on offensive content.


After explaining the “assumptions” on which the MPAA bases its system of ratings, this study includes many studies by social sciences, considers the cognitive development of children at various ages/stages, and finally proposes an alternative scheme.


The four faulty assumptions made by MPAA and some suggestions as to their limitations are stated first:

Viewers can be divided into three groupings, 0-13, 13-17, and 17+ years. (Age alone is poor determinant, but also groups are too broad in lower ages.)

Films containing problematic content have a more profound effect on younger than older. (There is distinct content that some may be more problematic for older than for younger children.)

Films are rated primarily on the amount of sex, violence, or explicitness, rather than on the context within which it occurs. (Little attention is given to how realistic or justified violence is, or to the rewards and punishments associated with it. The context of sexual acts-depicting rape, brutality, or mutually affectionate lovemaking-also needs additional consideration.)

Excessive and explicit sex is more offensive and problematic than excessive violence. (Violence directed against women in an erotic context, one of the most harmful areas found in this study, is not clearly considered in ratings.)

Research is reviewed under cognitive development as affected by four main categories: graphic horror, violence, sex, and sexual violence.

Cognitive Development

Younger children respond to surface stimuli; older children react to conceptual stimuli (thus, the young respond to the “monster” persona, while the older react to fear in the victim.). Younger kids have more difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy, and are less able to share another person’s perspective and to integrate pieces of information from a story to draw inferences. Following these many studies, authors suggest that at least two age settings, 3-7 and 8-12, coincide with Piaget’s stages.

Graphic Horror

Four characteristics reveal those which affect each of these two groups:

  • Visual versus non-visual threat. Younger respond to visual (“Wizard of Oz” or “Incredible Hulk”) and older to non-visual (“Poltergeist” or “The Amityville Horror”).
  • Reality versus fantasy. Parents report high fear aftermath from fictional programs for younger children.
  • Abstract versus concrete events. Older children react more strongly to abstractions, threat of political invasion, evil conspiracies, or hidden disasters such as poison gas. Younger children react to concrete events.
  • Threat versus victim focus. Greater fear is engendered in older children when the focus is from viewpoint of the victim, whereas younger children are mostly unable to empathize with another’s viewpoint.

Contextual features considered vital to ratings:

  • Reward versus punishment associated with violence. Younger children focus on immediate results, missing long-term negative consequences often occurring at the end of the film.
  • Degree of reality of violence. Older children react much more strongly to realistic events and things that are humanly possible; younger respond even to fantasy.
  • Nature of the perpetrator. Children identify with characters perceived as attractive or interesting. Younger children focus on the motives of the character.
  • Justified violence. A hero is popular when forced to be violent because his job demands it (Dirty Harry), or when he must retaliate against an enemy (Rambo). A hero acting aggressively for a “good” cause presents a confusing and negative role model for both younger and older children.
  • Similarity of movie situation and characters to viewer. Viewers are more likely to imitate behavior if cues are similar to the real life of viewer; i.e., children for children, adolescents for adolescents. There are even identifications with social and economic strata.
  • Amount of violence. This can cause “psychological blunting” of normal emotional response to violence and desensitization, proven in studies on children emerging from violent movies.

Sexual Content

Many fewer studies are available, as most people are unwilling to submit youngsters to the viewing of sexually explicit films. The use of “sexual language” as a criterion has proven to have quite limited negative impact. Additionally, a long-term study found no significant effects for exposure to sexual content at age 10, and in exposure to teens, effects are also limited. According to this study, “increased knowledge regarding sexual terms may occur, but there is not evidence for changes in adolescent attitudes and values regarding sexual practices, nor is there evidence for changes in actual behaviors following exposure.” Negative results, taken from adult viewers, mainly note the development of sexist attitudes toward women, rather than antisocial sexual acting out.

Sex and Violence

Again, no research exists with non-adult samples. With college-age adults, there was less sympathy for victims of sexual assault after viewing. Content analysis of videos notes that the viewer is more likely to encounter harmful depiction of violence against women both in non-sexual and sexual context of R-rated movies than X-rated shows. Studies have established a clear link between these movies and a callousness toward women as rape and violence victims, but not as a motivation for perpetuating such violence.


Films should be examined in terms of the four content areas listed above, and categorized by separate systems for children ages 3-7, 8-12, and 13-17. A brief table is presented in the study to indicate how this classification acheme is demonstrated. The main concept is that such a system gives the parents a clearer idea of the exact content of the film that is questionable or problematic by giving the reasons for the rating.


This study gives additional impetus for resturcturing the ratings system, backed by solid studies and developmental insights. Some positive elements emerge (importance of family in values development is still essential), but persons selected for the studies were generally from stable family settings, so the effects on marginal youngsters do not seem to be included.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How can parents today obtain a reliable, realistic evaluation of the movies their children are going to see, without previewing them themselves?
  2. How much control over movies-especially those on cable and in video stores-do parents have?
  3. Whose responsiblity is the content of movies and the rating of such? Who has the “power” and “money”?


  1. Discussions with young people are greatly faciliatated by familiarity with the characters and stories of the movies they watch. In a sense, these are their companions, friends, idols, dreams, and nightmares. Youth workers must take an interest in learning about them.
  2. Insightful discussion of previously viewed movies could emerge, using some of the ratings and categories of sub-ratings given above. Picking a popular film from a specific category, develop a values clarification story comparison.
  3. Ask youngsters to rate the movies, in the contexts of horror, violence, or sexual explicitness.
  4. A presentation of sexual violence-or general violence against women as culled from local newspapers-could lead to an analysis of current movies depicting violence against women.
  5. The issue of sexism-a much more subtle side effect of violent, horror, or sexually explicit movies-is one that needs to be addressed. This is particularly healthy in mixed gatherings of adolescents who often wonder, “What does he or she really think about that?”

Barbara Redmond
© 2018 CYS

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