Gun violence in top-grossing PG-13 movies — which even young children can see without adult consent or supervision — is exceeding gun violence in major R-rated films, according to a new University of Pennsylvania study published in the journal Pediatrics Wednesday.
The journal article, based on an analysis of movies from 1985 to 2015 by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, updates an earlier Penn study that found gun violence in top PG-13 movies had begun to exceed the ballistic content in the most popular R-rated movies. That earlier study, released in 2013, found that gun violence in major PG-13 films had more than doubled from 1985, the first full year that rating was in effect, to 2012.
The new analysis, which includes releases through 2015, shows that violent gun content in PG-13 films has continued "unabated," said Dan Romer, Annenberg's research director and the article's lead author.
"Our findings suggest that Hollywood continues to rely on gun violence as a prominent feature in its highly popular PG-13 action-oriented films," Romer said.
The researchers looked at half the top-30 grossing films each year from 1985 to 2015, noting their rating and the number of segments in which a character fires a gunshot that hits someone.
R-rated American Sniper (2015) and PG-13-rated Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) tied with 14 such shooting segments each.
Other movies in the sample included PG-13-rated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and Insurgent, all from 2015 with eight gun segments each, and 2014's R-rated Lone Survivor with nine gun segments and 22 Jump Street with five.
The study found that the PG-13 segments tend to be less bloody and less realistic than those in the R movies.
"What increasingly differentiates the instances of gun violence in PG-13 films from those rated R is not only the higher frequency in the PG-13 category but also these films' erasure of the consequences (eg., blood and suffering) and the greater likelihood that the violence will be perpetrated by or on comic-book-inspired heroes and antiheroes (eg. Batman, Avengers, and X-Men)," the article states.
"There is a lot more violence in these PG-13" films, Romer said. "They just don't look as bad."
Still, Romer and his colleagues say these depictions are potentially dangerous. They point to research showing that watching portrayals of people smoking and drinking will make some people more likely to engage in those behaviors.
In addition, the article notes that a research policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics states viewing violence may influence some young people to act aggressively.
Besides more violence in the films with less restrictive ratings, the Annenberg study found that more of the top-30 box office motion picture are rated PG-13. In the first full three years of the PG-13 rating, 29 percent of the top-30 grossing movies domestically were PG-13, according to the article. From 2013 to 2015, PG-13 films made up 51 percent of the top 30.
"Over the same period, films with an R rating declined from 40 percent to 23 percent within the top-30 category, paralleling a gradual shift of violent content in top-grossing movies from the R to the PG-13 category," the article states.
The article also cites past Annenberg Public Policy Center research that found parents became less sensitive to violence and sex in films with repeated exposure and, over time, were more willing to allow younger teens to see such films.
The Annenberg center study suggests additional research into the effects of viewing gun violence, along with considering the AAP's recommendations. Those include asking the entertainment industry to avoid glamorizing weapon-carrying or portraying violence as an acceptable way to resolve conflict; to eliminate use of violence in a comic or sexual context; and, if violence is shown, to include the suffering of both victims and perpetrators.