Parents Find Media Rating Systems Lacking

TUESDAY June 21, 2011 -- Parents are giving the current media rating systems poor grades.

Moms and dads definitely want help when it comes to deciding whether or not a movie, TV show or video game is appropriate for their children. But, new research says the current rating systems aren't giving them the information they need.

In three different studies of parents, all reported in the July issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that parents want more detailed information about media content over the vague descriptions they're being given now.

"When parents use media ratings and do set limits on the content of the media that their children see, there's a powerful protective factor. Those kids do better in school and they get into fewer fights. Ratings have a tremendous potential to matter, and if they were more accurate, they could matter even more," said the lead author of the three studies, Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

The three studies included a nationally-representative sample of about 700 parents, who gave feedback on the current ratings systems and how they could best help protect their children.

The current rating system for television, for example, includes descriptors for violence (V), coarse or crude language (L) and sexual situations (S), which other research suggests is often far from accurate. Experts say this is problematic because many studies have linked violent media content to an increase in aggressive behavior in children and teens. Exposure to sexual content has been linked to earlier sexual activity.

The first two studies asked parents how familiar they were with the ratings system, what they'd like to change and how important specific types of content were in trying to protect their children.

The researchers found that less than 20 percent of parents get the information they need from the rating systems for movies, TV and video games. And, less than 6 percent of the parents surveyed felt that the ratings were always accurate.

Movie ratings were by far the most widely used. Besides being most familiar with the movie ratings, nearly half (49 percent) of the parents used them every time or most of the time their children saw a movie. They were less familiar with the other ratings, with just 34 percent using video games ratings and television ratings, only 31 percent.

Three-quarters of the parents said they'd like more detailed information on the content -- such as warnings about profanity, physical abuse and torment, fight scenes with deaths, illegal drug use and teen alcohol abuse -- to be included in ratings, and 68 percent said they'd like to have age-appropriate recommendations. Fifty-seven percent of parents supported the idea of having a universal rating system for all media.

The study that generated the most controversy gave parents specific examples of child-inappropriate television content and asked them to rate on a five point scale what ages they would filter it out. The questions included sexual content, violence, offensive language and mature content. This study was designed to see whether or not parents could agree on the age-appropriateness of certain content.

They didn't.

Among the parents, 79 percent would always or often filter out explicit sex, 61 percent would filter out partial nudity and 53 percent would filter out commercials with sexual content, according to the study. With the exception of sexy commercials, many parents felt that 17 years or older should be the minimum age to watch such content.

The researchers found significant differences for other sexual content. Among regular churchgoers, 39 percent would always filter out sexy commercials, whereas only 15 percent of those who don't attend church regularly would.

The majority of parents would filter out sexual crimes, graphic violence, self-harm, suicide, physical abuse and intense fighting with injury or death. Most parents would also filter sexual obscenities and racial or religious slurs. Sixteen percent of infrequent churchgoers would always filter out the use of a deity as a curse, compared to 46 percent of frequent churchgoers.

"Age-based ratings are based on what is sometimes called a false-consensus bias. It's based on the idea that other people will believe the same things that you believe. But, parents didn't agree," said Gentile. "So, all age-based ratings can't be right. Instead, we should be documenting what the content is, and let parents decide based on their values," he added.

"No matter how you slice it, trying to come up with one age-based system that a majority of parents would agree on is a fool's errand," he said.

Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, clinical director of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said that a universal rating system that provides more content information makes sense. The bottom line, he said, is that "a rating system doesn't work unless it's useable by parents."

But, he pointed out, with computers and smart phones becoming so ubiquitous, it's often hard for parents to control their child's media exposure. He said that early on, parents need to teach their children how to be more media savvy.

More information

Learn more about healthy media habits from the Nemours Foundation's KidsHealth Web site.

Posted: June 2011


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