Recently the Journal of Pediatrics published a study entitled Parental Desensitization to Violence and Sex in Movies. The authors took 1,000 U.S. parents and showed them multiple pairs of clips that were designated as having a rating of PG-13, R, or unrated. Each parent in the study had at least one child in the home between the ages of 6-17 years old. After each clip, they asked parents to report the minimum age at which they would allow their youth to view the film with this content.
As the number of clips increased, the ages at which parents indicated they would allow their youth to view the films dropped significantly. What began as an average of 16.9 years of age for violent content and 17.2 years for sexual content eventually dropped to 13.9 years for violence and 14.0 for sex. Although varied scenes were used, the maturity of the content did not decrease as the study progressed, and a number of research strategies were put into place to make sure that any unintended factor did not affect parental rating changes. In addition to a drop in age restrictions, parents also increasingly indicated that they would be fine with their own youth (at any age) watching these films as the number of viewings increased. Those parents who also more frequently watched movies themselves were more likely to be permissive with regard to restrictions about viewing the movies.
None of this should come as a great surprise. The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), which assigns the movie ratings, has acknowledged in recent years that it has allowed more violent content in PG-13 movies than before. For example, as noted in the Pediatrics article, “the amount of gun violence in top-grossing PG-13 films has more than tripled since the PG-13 rating was introduced in 1985 (pg. 878).” In fact, gun violence in PG-13 movies was found to generally be greater than that of R rated movies, which tend to be more sexually explicit. In acknowledging the increased leniency with their ratings, CARA attributes the shift to changing parental standards. And polls, including those done by the Kaiser Foundation, have found that this shift appears to exist for both sexual and violent material.
If we as parents are willing to consider and reflect on these findings, we are faced with some serious questions. One is the issue of desensitization, both for ourselves and our kids. Studies have repeatedly shown that desensitization results in a decreased, diluted emotional response to sensitive issues. This in turn can significantly decrease the level of compassion and empathy that a person feels. With lessened empathy comes a decreased likelihood of responsiveness to other people in a variety of circumstances.
Second, studies have repeatedly shown that exposure to sexually explicit and violent material does increase thoughts, feelings, and actions in these areas. The proliferation of pornography is one likely result of just how repeated viewing of callous, illicit sexual material has led many to see sexual acts as a commodity and a stress reliever, not necessarily an intimate act between two committed people who deeply care for each other. Some people argue that viewing inappropriate material, such as increased gun fights or promiscuous sexual activity online or through other virtual media, actually gives youth a “release” for their urges so that they will not actually follow through with inappropriate or illegal actions. But mountains of research do not support this premise. In the case of viewing gun violence, studies have shown that similar behaviors has increased significantly between youth over the past decade, just as PG-13 movies have blown us away with a new standard of violence on the screen.
But there is another serious question that looms beyond all this, even if you do not accept the prior concerns as being valid. Simply put, are we fine with the moral compass continuing its southerly spiral? And are we fine as parents being agents and facilitators of this shift? Often times when parents challenge me on my media and technology concerns and suggested restrictions, it is under two contentions. One, it is that our youth are going to find a way to see it anyway. Two, they note that if we as parents are really concerned, we just have to make conscious choices to restrict material that is considered inappropriate.
But in adopting both of these positions, I think we would find ourselves in a very prickly position. In regards to the idea that some youth will seek out devious, illicit actions at times, I do not disagree. But one thing is for sure. If we sanction it, whether consciously or unconsciously, they will certainly seek it out more and see it as acceptable, now and likely for the rest of their life. It is important to remember that youth’s frontal lobes are years or decades away from being fully developed. Much development needs to occur with impulse control and emotional regulation, which partially occurs through constant feedback and redirection from parents. It is one huge reason why car insurance policies for 16-year-olds are so costly. So without parents and other caregivers as clear, conscientious, moral agents, it is understandable that many of our youth will take the most immediately gratifying—and often riskier—route on a regular basis, even if the potential consequences are severe.
But beyond this, it is the unconscious reality that is the most concerning. Often we as parents think that as long as we consciously make good choices, things will likely work out fine for our youth. But think back to the study, and consider it as just one example in what psychology has known for a long time. Our unconscious mind is a huge player in what we do daily. The parents that participated in this study had no idea that they were being tested in the area of desensitization. Likely, if questioned about their level of restrictions, most (as usually happens in these studies) would have denied that unconscious factors played a role in their increasing permissiveness. But these factors play a role in decision-making over and over again. And so the more sex and violence the parents saw, and the more they had watched before the study, the less they were really concerned. If you doubt this, ask kids who have grown up in violent neighborhoods. The first gun fight they witnessed often comes as a shock. The tenth comes as a reality, as least as they perceive it.
In the end, it all suggests that what we view not only matters to us, but it affects the choices we make for our kids. Likely for most, this discussion evokes worries of behaviors, relationships, and long-term outcomes for your own kids. For many, it may cause discomfort about what this might mean in regards to eternal salvation, theirs and ours. But, for all of us, I hope we all just take it to heart at some level. For me personally, I eventually want to be able to share films of many kinds with my kids. But I am afraid that someday, I am going to pop in a G rated film, and find Snow White and Hansel getting hot and heavy (yes, I know kids wouldn’t describe it that way). If you think I am crazy, check out a few of the older Scooby Doo episodes and compare to newer, redesigned series. A slipping neckline. Increased adult, darker themes. Much more talking back and disrespect. What’s next to come?