Gun imagery in PG-13 movies is targeting our teens

PG-13 movies now have more gun violence than R-rated ones.

I was in fourth grade when Red Dawn debuted as the first PG-13 rated movie back in 1985. At the time Red Dawn was released, it was considered one of the most violent films by The National Coalition on Television Violence, with a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute. And although not every PG-13 movie has had significant violence (think Pretty in Pink) it turns out PG-13 and gun violence have become close bedfellows over the last 28 years.

New research out in Pediatrics finds that gun violence is becoming a more common thread in the movies. Researchers sampled 945 films (all from the top 30 grossing films annually) since 1950, coding and evaluating 5-minute violent sequences in those films. The results proved unsurprising but unsettling: overall gun-violent sequences more than doubled in the sixty years from 1950 to 2012.  When looking specifically at PG-13 movies researchers saw a tripling in gun violence since the rating was created in 1985. The trend for violence in these PG-13 movies has grown so rapidly it’s created a new reality. Over the past 30 years, R-rated movies have shown no change in the amount of gun violence sequences while PG-13 have soared making gun violence more prominent in PG-13 movies than in R-rated movies. Stunning when you think of it — gun imagery densely populating the movies targeting our teens. Yes, violence sells.

The weapons effect

Researchers embarked on this study in part because of concerns about the weapons effect. They note that the national dialogue about guns and safety has been lacking mention of the weapons effect, that is, the fact that just seeing a weapon can increase aggression or aggressive behavior. It was more than 50 years ago that researchers first described the weapons effect with 50 subsequent studies replicating the effect. Further study has found that even just hearing about guns can increase our aggression. The weapons effect is consistent in both angry and non-angry people.

Exposure to violent media can increase aggressive attitudes, behaviors, and values, particularly in children. This finding has been scientifically reviewed and replicated numerous times; it is endorsed by 6 public health organizations (The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association).

Tips for families and movie selection

  • You’re not imaging it, films approved for teens have gotten more violent. As Blockbuster fades into the ether we know there are 3 times the amount of gun-violent episodes in PG-13 films today compared to the 1980′s. R-rated movies may have less gun violence than PG-13 ones.
  • Weapons Effect: Movies with gun violence bring the weapons effect into your home. Children and teens not only see weapons in these films they also can see characters and heroes acting out scripts for using guns. Think carefully before letting young children or teens view violent PG-13 movies. Research shows this kind of imagery increases aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior.
  • Reviews: Read reviews for movies, apps, and games prior to granting permission for watching/playing them. Review levels of violence and images of weapons in reviews. Check out Common Sense Media Movies Review for wisdom.
  • Friday Movie Night: Watch movies with your children and teens when you can — know exactly what it is they’re seeing and absorbing. Co-viewing movies with your children and teen may become more and more essential, especially after entering into the PG-13 movie aisle (online).

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc.

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