One year ago, I began a series of posts on why I don’t rely on the ratings systems for media products (TV, video games, movies). Long story short, I got distracted and never finished the series! The start of a new year seems like a good time to tackle unfinished projects, so here goes…
Because it has been awhile, let me first recap what has already been covered:
Problem # 1: Ratings creep (aka, What used to be “R” is now “PG-13”)
Problem #2: Inconsistency of ratings (aka, All “TV-M” shows are not created equal)
Problem #3: The alphabet soup of the ratings system (aka, Most people don’t know what the plethora of different ratings mean)
This leads to the last two problems:
Problem #4: Age-based ratings are not useful
The current rating systems are primarily age-based rather than content-based, meaning that they provide guidelines of what age groups the media product is appropriate for (e.g. PG-13 = “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13”). There are three problems with this approach. First, the age-based rating systems were developed by the media industry, not child development experts. Therefore, the age cut-offs used in the ratings are arbitrary and not based on existing knowledge about the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children and teens of different ages.
Second, research has consistently shown that parents prefer ratings that are content-based rather than age-based. Age-based rating systems do not allow parents to make media decisions based on their personal values and concerns regarding their children’s’ exposure to language, sex, or violence. Although movie and television ratings now include some information about content, this information is only provided for some rating categories. For example, G-rated films never contain content ratings and neither do TV-Y or TV-G television programs.
Third, age-based ratings lead to what is known as the “forbidden fruit” effect. Research has shown that children and teens are most attracted to media content that has age restrictions. In contrast, content-based labels do not have similar allure. As a parent, I anticipate that someday I will experience yet another problem with age-based ratings—my children will likely say something such as, “I am 13, so I should be able to see [insert name of a movie with PG-13 rating]!” Sound familiar to anyone? This problem only exists with age-based ratings.
Problem #5: Ratings are not based on what research demonstrates is harmful to youth
I have mentioned several times that child development experts did not design the ratings systems. And I am pretty certain that the individuals in the media industry responsible for the development of the ratings systems did not read up on the latest media research before they got to work. As a result, what was created were rating systems based on idiosyncratic concerns, with no regard for what actually is harmful to children. Let me give you two specific examples. First, the television rating system makes a distinction between animated and non-animated violence. Animated violence is given a content rating of FV (Fantasy violence), whereas only non-animated violence is given a content rating of V (violence). Common sense might suggest that this is a useful distinction, but research indicates it is not. There is ample evidence that cartoon and “fantasy” violence increase aggression in children, just as non-animated violence does. (For a lengthy discussion of why, see this article by Steven Kirsh). A second example of how the ratings systems do not reflect media research is that the ratings systems do not take into account that how content (such as sex and violence) is portrayed can alter its effects. For example, child viewers are much more likely to learn televised aggressive behaviors if they are rewarded; however, the current ratings system does not consider these types of factors when assigning ratings.
So, now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that the ratings systems are practically useless, the next obvious question is, “What is a parent to do?” Stay tuned for my thoughts on that!