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PG-13 movies and the weapons effect: parents, take action

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  November 12, 2013 11:06 AM

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pg-13.jpgHere's a scary fact: Since 2009, PG-13 movies have contained as much or more violence as R-rated movies.

It's true, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. Violence in all films has doubled since 1950--but the increases in films geared for youth is striking, and disturbing. Gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985. 

When we think about PG-13 movies, we generally think of them as being fine for youth. Maybe not really young children, but certainly fine for older kids. But that really may not be true.

It has to do with something called the "weapons effect". It turns out that the mere presence of a gun can make people more aggressive. In a study done in 1967, researchers had subjects give electric shocks to people (accomplices of the researchers) to evaluate them on tasks. On the table in the room were either two guns, badminton equipment, or nothing at all. The subjects were told that the objects were left over from another experiment and the researchers forgot to put them away. They were told to ignore them, but they didn't; if the guns were in the room, subjects delivered bigger and more shocks than they did if there was badminton equipment or nothing at all.

Yes, 1967 was a long time ago--but there have been lots of studies since that have shown the same thing. The mere presence of guns makes people more aggressive. Even seeing the word "gun" has an effect.

So what does it mean for this generation of children, growing up with so much depiction of violence in the media?

It's not just the psychological effects of guns. As the study authors point out, youth learn how to solve problems by watching how others solve problems. Too often, what they are seeing is that the way to solve problems is through violence.

This has real and frightening implications for the behavior of our youth--and the well-being of our society in general. This is something we need to react to. 

I don't think it's possible to stop our children from being exposed to violence. I think that ship has sailed. But I do think that we can try to limit it. I think that parents can be more thoughtful about what movies their children see; at least when they are young, parents can exert control. We've all had the experience of going to violent movies only to see young children there--that's just unnecessary. Somehow, we need to do a better job of getting the message to parents that ratings are there for a reason. 

But also, I think parents have to have more conversations with their children about the violence they see. We need more processing and debriefing. Violence has become so common that it's easy to just let it pass--but that's a mistake. We need to talk to our kids about how it makes them feel, about why violence is bad, and about how there are better ways to solve problems. If we don't say anything, we let media violence do the talking for us.

So think about it. Do your homework before letting your child see something--read reviews (Common Sense Media is a great site for this) and find out exactly what's in the movie. Think about whether it is a good idea for your child to watch it. Help youth make good choices (or make better choices for them), and if you haven't already, start talking.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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