Movies aimed at teenagers now include more scenes of gun violence than films made for adults, new research shows.
In 2012, box office hits that received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America contained an average of more than 2.5 dramatic sequences involving guns per hour, according to a study published Monday by the journal Pediatrics. PG-13 movies have matched or exceeded the gun violence of R-rated movies since 2009, the researchers found.
In fact, scenes of gun-fueled death and destruction have become so frequent in PG-13 movies that the overall rate of gun violence in movies has more than doubled since 1985, even though guns have become less common in G and PG movies during that time and remained essentially flat in movies rated R. (The PG-13 rating was introduced in 1984.)
Although a PG-13 rating is intended to warn parents that "some material may be inappropriate for children under 13," such movies are routinely watched by younger children -- especially when they make it to TV or the Internet, the researchers lamented. "Children much younger than 13 years can easily view films that contain ample gun violence," they wrote.
Four researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, Ohio State University and VU University Amsterdam focused on the 30 highest-grossing movies for the years 1950 to 2012 -- 945 films in all. Each of those films was watched by "trained coders" who kept track of the violent sequences in each five-minute chunk of each movie. They counted a total of 17,695 such sequences in those 945 movies.
Then they narrowed their analysis to the 420 films that came out since 1985, the first full year the PG-13 rating was in effect. Among those movies, 396 -- or 94 percent -- contained at least one five-minute segment with some sort of violence.
Those segments were further analyzed to see if they included a "gun," which the researchers defined as "a weapon that can be carried with one or both hands that fires a bullet or energy beam with the intention of harming or killing a living target." By this definition, a battle scene with only rocket-propelled grenades wouldn't count as an instance of gun violence; neither would a scene of hunters shooting at animals or cops taking target practice at a shooting range. Altogether, they counted 783 segments that met their criteria for gun violence.
Among the 21 movies rated G and 109 movies rated PG, instances of gun violence decreased between 1985 and 2012, the researchers reported. During the same period, there was no clear trend of gun violence becoming more or less common in the 119 movies that were rated R. But among the 166 movies rated PG-13, the rate soared.
These findings were troubling to the researchers because children often look to the movies for guidance on how to solve problems in their own lives. (They noted that when James Holmes suited up in full tactical gear and began spraying bullets into an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during a screening of "Batman," he told police he was "the Joker.")
Gun violence in movies may seem too over-the-top and absurd to play any role in real life, but there are scientifically sound reasons to take the matter seriously. Many studies have linked smoking and drinking in movies to increases in smoking and drinking among kids and teens, the researchers noted.
Way back in 1967, psychologists demonstrated that simply sitting in the same room as a revolver or shotgun made people more aggressive. (In that classic study, test subjects were seated at a table that held either a gun or badminton equipment -- said to be left over from a previous event -- or at an empty table. Subjects were asked to evaluate a person's performance on a task and give them a corresponding electric shock. Those who were in the presence of a gun delivered more aggressive shocks than subjects confronted with badminton racquets and shuttlecocks or subjects seated at bare tables.)
"The effects of exposure to gun violence in films should not be trivialized," the researchers concluded. "The mere presence of guns in these films may increase the aggressive behavior of youth."