Study: Violence Levels In Movies Have Skyrocketed Over Last 30 Years

The Motion Picture Association of America describes a PG-13 movie as a film with content that “may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category.”

When it comes to violence, the MPAA says, “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence.”

The PG-13 rating criteria have remained largely untouched for the past 30 years. Despite this, a recent study found that violence rates in PG-13 movies have skyrocketed in recent years. It looks as though levels of violence once suitable only for R-rated movies are now permitted in PG-13 films as well.

“Results found that violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and gun violence in PG-13–rated films has more than tripled since 1985,” the study says. “When the PG-13 rating was introduced, these films contained about as much gun violence as G and PG films. Since 2009, PG-13–rated films have contained as much or more violence as R-rated films (age 17+) films.”

Interesting fact: sexuality and drug use are not found more now in PG-13 films than in the past. Any movie with extensive amounts of either activity still earns an R rating. It appears that violence is the only criteria the MPAA seems to have a newfound tolerance for in PG-13 films.

Speaking of which, a separate study conducted in 2012 suggests that we may have become desensitized to violence in the media. Like an addict who needs an ever-increasing amount of a substance to feel the same high, the study suggests we need more and more violence to be as entertained by it as we used to be.

Perhaps no movie shows this trend more clearly than the "Rambo" series. The four Rambo movies were produced from 1982-2008. In each seqeuential movie, more people die than in its immediate predecessor. In "First Blood," Rambo kills just one person. In "First Blood Part II," this number jumps to 58 people. The number increases again when Rambo kills 78 people in "Rambo III," and rises a final time when Rambo kills 83 people in the 2008 final "Rambo."

It’s not just Rambo who is doing more killing in the films. The total number of people killed, the number of people killed by Rambo’s accomplices, and the number of innocent people slain in each film increase as well. Check out this chart showing the sharp increase in violence throughout the film series:

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So what does it all mean? Studies trying to make a link between media violence and real world violence have shown mixed results. While media violence has skyrocketed, youth violence rates are the lowest they’ve been in 40 years.

The effects of violent media exposure reach further than violence, though. Remember what we were saying about desensitization? A 2008 study found that youths exposed to high levels of media violence were less empathetic to people in need than those who weren’t.

The study, carried out by researchers Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson, showed that those who played violent video games took longer to help an injured victim, rated a given fight as less serious, and were less likely to respond to a fight in comparison to those who played non-violent video games. The same pattern applied to those who watched violent movies as well.

So even if violence in the media doesn't make us more violent individually, it might still be damaging. Here’s what Hofstra University ethics professor Arthur Dorbin had to say on the topic.

“Exposure to violence in the media numbs us to another’s distress and can lead to the dismissal or not even noticing another’s pain,” he said. “Cultural change takes place when people say enough. And evidence shows that we’ve had more than enough of violence. It is making us coarser, harsher and less humane.”

Sources: Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Academia.edu, MPAA, Psychology Today


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