Study: Extreme Media Desensitizes Viewers

Written by PTC | Published October 20, 2014

A new scientific study demonstrates that viewing scenes of extreme sex or violence in media makes viewers more tolerant of such content – and more lenient in allowing children to see it. As reported in Deadline: Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Christian Science Monitor, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that parents who watch scenes of explicit sex and graphic violence rapidly change their opinion of how old a child should be to watch films containing such content. In the study, conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 1000 parents were shown graphic film clips from movies, including The Terminator, Die Hard, 8 Mile, Collateral, and Casino Royale, then were surveyed about what age a child should be before watching the movie. Initially, the parents’ reactions were quite conservative, with their first instinct being that children should be 17 before seeing graphic sex or violence. But viewing each clip caused parents to revise their age estimate downward; after viewing the last clip, parents said graphic violence and sex were acceptable for children age 14. In part the study was done to explain “ratings creep” – the fact that movies rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America today are often far more violent than movies rated R were in the past. For example, the amount of gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since the 1980s, to the point that gun violence is more common in PG-13 films today than it is in R-rated movies. “People who rate movies for the MPAA, who are themselves parents, could be subject to the same desensitization and thus more likely to be lenient when it comes to evaluating the appropriateness of such content for children…Parent raters for the movie industry may become progressively more approving of violence in movies simply because of their job,” the study says. The end result is that parents who are heavy media consumers – including raters for the Motion Picture Association of America – are less likely to shield children from intense media violence and sex. (This may also explain why those who work for the broadcast TV networks, and who are exposed to extreme media content non-stop, consistently rate even the most graphic broadcast television content TV-14, acceptable for 14 year olds.) This proves that the MPAA has gotten things backward. In its statements, the organization has claimed that it has allowed more graphic content in PG-13 movies because parents’ standards have changed, and the ratings are merely reflecting that. But in fact, this study shows that the parents’ standards have changed because there is more graphic content in the movies – and parents have become desensitized to it. The scientists conducting the study were astonished by how quickly parental attitudes changed. Dan Romer, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the lead author on the study, said “We expected there to be a certain amount of what we call desensitization. But what was so stunning was how clear the pattern was and how dramatic it was.” Also surprising – and alarming – was the fact that there was what scientists call “transfer of desensitization," meaning that viewing violence doesn’t only make one less sensitive to violence – it also desensitizes the viewer to increased sexual content. The reverse is also true. “We were surprised to see this,” Romer said. “If the parents saw movie clips with violence, they became more accepting of the sex scenes, and vice-versa. If they see violence, or if they see sex, they are more accepting of any kind of objectionable or upsetting content.” Given the widespread consensus among scientists and pediatricians that media violence increases aggression in children, the fact that parents and even those trusted to rate media content are desensitized by viewing it demonstrates the need for much more stringent ratings policies…and for increased responsibility on the part of the entertainment industry, by cutting back on the amounts of explicit violence and sex they show in their products.

Take Action. Stay Informed.