PG-13 Movies Portray Same Amount of Alcohol Use by Violent Characters as R Movies

Parents often rely on the movie ratings system to help guide decisions about which movies their kids are allowed to see. For teens, parents may limit them to PG-13 movies, or only allow R-rated movies if they are pre-screened by the parents for content and language. 

Observing the scenes and language that are allowed in PG-13 movies often causes parents to scratch their heads. While much of the confusion may be due to varied personal opinions about what content is most damaging to young minds, it may still seem as if there are not set standards for what is allowed under each rating.

A study by researchers from The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania examined patterns of risky behaviors in five-minute sections in 390 of the top-grossing movies from 1985 to 2010, focusing on instances of violence connected with sex, tobacco and alcohol-related behaviors. The study found that almost 90 percent of the most popular movies in this time period featured a main character that engaged in violence. 

The same characters also engaged in risky alcohol, sex and/or tobacco related behaviors in 77 percent of the biggest movies of that era. Over half of the most popular PG-13 movies portrayed a central character participating in violence and then engaging in drinking, smoking or sexual behaviors within a five minute time period.

The study shows that there was no meaningful difference between top-grossing PG-13 and R-rated movies in the ways that main characters were featured as glorifying violence combined with alcohol use or violence combined with sexual behavior.

The concern, say experts, is that the depictions of risky behaviors in movies could teach youth that both violence and those risky behaviors are acceptable. Previous studies have shown that teenagers imitate the behaviors that they see in films. Amy Bleakley, leading author and senior research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, says that movies that are marketed to viewers that are younger are connecting violence with other types of high-risk behaviors.

The researchers believe that some teens, and particularly those that are drawn to experiences that introduce novelty or risk, might be likely to imitate the behaviors seen in these movies.

Another study conducted by the same researchers recently documented gun violence in PG-13 movies surpassing the gun violence shown in R-rated movies in 2012.

Overall, there has been a decline of depictions involving alcohol and tobacco. Smoking and drinking is more likely to occur in an R-rated movie compared with a PG-13 movie, but both categories have declined in their inclusion of alcohol and tobacco. Violent characters in R-rated movies engaged in “explicit sex,” in which nudity and intercourse is depicted, more often than PG-13 movies. Violence and explicit sex were connected in a five-minute segment in 16.6 percent of R-rated movies and 7.8 percent of PG-13 movies.

The researchers say that the findings call into question the effectiveness of the ratings system to shield teenagers from depictions of behaviors that often have negative outcomes. Movies tend to have happy endings, but teens that see themselves as invincible may be inspired by these movies to engage in activities that lead to injury, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies and/or devastating addictions.