Media rating systems do not give parents the information they need to judge whether movies, TV programs or video games are appropriate for their children, according to a new study.
Whereas we now have distinct age-based rating systems for distinct forms of media, parents would prefer one universal system that more accurately informs them about specific content, says Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University.
“All of our rating systems rest on the assumption that all parents agree on what content is appropriate for what age, but there is no agreement,” Gentile said.
For example, 33 percent of the more than 700 parents questioned in the study said it was appropriate for children younger than six to view footage of romantic kissing, while 22 percent of the parents said children should be at least 13 to 16 years old before viewing such material.
“Regardless of what age raters set for a movie or video game, most parents will inevitably disagree,” Gentile said. “With a content-based system, everyone can judge for themselves based on their own values whether a movie or video game is appropriate.”
But what content do parents need to know about in order to make this judgment?
That’s one thing this study, available online in the journal Pediatrics, has come a little closer to answering.
The parents were queried on how valuable they found 37 distinct descriptors, selected based on years of research and grouped into the four broad categories of "sexual content," "violent content," "mature content" and "offensive language. "
"Offensive language," for example, was divided into distinct descriptors, including "mild insults using body parts," "disrespect toward a deity or sacred symbol’s name" and "mild cursing." The researchers gave examples for the above categories such as "you’re a butthead, stupid," "oh my God," and "hell, damn."
Sexual content descriptors included "romantic kissing," described as "affectionate but not sexual" and without "open mouths or tongue contact," and also "nonsexual partial nudity" such as the "rear view of naked behind in [a] nonsexual situation."
Overall, more than 80 percent of the parents said the number and details of the descriptors provided in the study was just right.
“The cutting edge of research now is what would be a minimum number of descriptors and whether they should be mainly descriptors that lots of parents care about, or also ones that few parents care about, but those who do care, care about them strongly,” Gentile told TechNewsDaily.
The study evaluated this, too. “One example is the portrayal of gays,” he said. “Some parents don’t want their children ever to see that and some specifically do.”
Although only a few parents filter for this, those who do, care about it greatly, Gentile added. A new media rating system might need to take this into account, too.
Mainly, though, Gentile said a new system should use science-based evidence of what’s known to be harmful for children and also what’s known to be good for children, not only what parents like. (Although this, too, should factor into it, he said.) To attain this, Gentile hopes a dialogue will now happen between people who understand how the different industries work — people from the TV, movie and video game industries, pediatricians or child development experts, ratings researchers, maybe even educators, or public policy professionals.
“Parents say they really want ratings, but they don’t really use them that much because they aren’t accurate,” Gentile said.
“The reason it matters so much is because research indicates when parents do use ratings, it’s good for kids. They get into fewer fights, have better grades in school. So, the better the ratings are the more power we’ve given to parents. And "digital convergence” — the ability to consume the same media on a variety of devices nowadays — “means now is the time to develop a rating system that is universal.”
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