Friday, June 1, 2012

Ratings Creep and Movie Review Tools

Source: Common Sense Media
Do you feel like movies are more violent, contain more sexual content, and more profane than they used to be? Are you ever surprised by a rating? (i.e. "Wow, that really should be rated higher than G.") You're not alone. Media experts have recognized that movies contain more "mature" content than similarly rated movies just a decade ago. They call it "ratings creep."

Chelsea Clinton and James P. Steyer refer to ratings creep in their CNN.com article Is the Internet hurting children?.
[The challenges that today's kids face] also include traditional media and the phenomenon of "ratings creep" in the movies that our kids consume. Movies today -- even G-rated ones -- contain significantly more sex and violence, on average, than movies with the same rating 10 or 20 years ago.
A 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found evidence that "violence, sex, and profanity increased significantly in movies between 1992 and 2003." This suggests "that the MPAA became increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings." The Motion Picture Association of America voluntarily assigns ratings to films to inform the public of content and age appropriateness. But the ratings appear to be non-standardized. Other organizations point out that the MPAA is biased because it is "financed and controlled by the film industry." In fact, ratings are subject to film marketing decisions and are negotiable.

The Harvard study draws some interesting conclusions that affect parents:
  • Parents need to be aware of the the film industry's attempts to normalize substance abuse, including tobacco, alcohol and drugs. As of the date of the study, the use of cigarettes on camera was not listed as a ratings reason at all although 79% of all movies included representations of smoking. Additionally, 93% of all films included depictions of substance abuse, while substance abuse was listed as a ratings reason only 18% of the time.
  • Parents should know that "movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and types of potentially objectionable content. Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content, and the criteria for rating movies became less stringent over the last decade."
In a post a few months ago I cited Common Sense Media as an independent movie review system that helps parents determine which movies are right for their families.  Through reading the Harvard study, I discovered another movie review site that could be very helpful for parents: Kids-In-Mind.com.

While advocating for "responsible, engaged parenting," Kids-In-Mind.com shares objective movie reviews based on three criteria: sex/nudity, violence/gore, and profanity. It makes no judgements about what is right or wrong; it just shares the facts about what a movie watcher will experience in a movie.

I tested the site. I looked at the reviews of a few movies I've already seen and the reviews were accurate. In fact, the reviews included information that I missed while watching the movie. While the site contains reviews of what looks like hundreds of movies, not all movies are covered. I didn't find one that my kids particularly like: Marley and Me: The Puppy Years. I'm interested in how that movie would score.

I should note that Kids-In-Mind is fraught with advertisements. The organization claims it needs the ads for revenue, and they have no control over the content of the ads. (Ironically, a Spider Man ad popped up for me when using the site.) Those that sign up as members of the site for $25 per year get an ad-free version to use.  I should also note that the site is run by a for-profit company called Critics, Inc. What this all means, I don't know. But at first glance it seems like a thorough, reliable, and useful tool for parents, and the more tools we have to make informed decisions for our families, the better off our kids will be.

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