Making Sense of Media Content Ratings

O 11 18 008

I don’t believe in strictly following industry ratings for movies and electronic media. My son, for instance, watched Stand By Me (Columbia Pictures, rated R) well before the age of 17. In my opinion, this is a quality film with a great message for teens. However, it might not sit well with parents who don’t want their teens exposed to profanity.

Content ratings guidelines are established by an industry committee to help parents decide what content is appropriate for their children. However, what’s appropriate for one 13-year-old might not be appropriate for another.

Rating details

Ratings change over time, and the content in one PG-13 movie might be entirely different from another, particularly if the movie was filmed more than 10 years ago. Music of yesteryear was far less explicit as well. The gaming industry is a newer entity, yet the issues remain the same concerning content. The following outlines entertainment industry ratings and advisories starting at the teen ages:

*    Motion Picture Association of America
May be inappropriate for children under 13. May contain drug use, brief nudity that may not be sexually oriented, mild violence and single use of one of the harsher, sexually derived words.
Children under 17 require accompanying parent or guardian. May contain adult themes, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually oriented nudity or drug abuse.
No one 17 or under is admitted. Extreme violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse and other elements most parents consider off-limits.

*    Entertainment Software Rating Board
T (Teen):
May be suitable for ages 13 and older. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, simulated gambling or infrequent use of strong language.
M (Mature):
May be suitable for ages 17 and older. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content or strong language.
A: Adults only, age 18 and over.
May contain prolonged, intense violence or graphic sexual content and nudity.

*    Recording Industry Association of America
In 1990, the RIAA implemented a uniform “Parental Advisory” logo. The industry claims the Parental Advisory Program “allows record companies and their artists to exercise their rights of free expression while fulfilling their social responsibilities to consumers.” These logos “voluntarily” appear on the cover of music recordings because of sexually explicit or violent material.

Help or hindrance?

Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, led a national study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in June 2011 of nearly 2,400 parents, which found that 76 percent of parents wanted to see more detailed content ratings. The study also found that parents do not agree on the appropriate age to view different types of content, and a very low percentage (about 5 percent) viewed entertainment ratings as always accurate.

In Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything (Amacom, 2008), author and psychologist Michael Osit states: “I believe that our culture has become so skewed in terms of what is acceptable for children and adolescents to be exposed to that the ratings should only serve as a guide for parents. Whenever possible, parents should also preview the material, read watchdog group reviews online, and talk to other parents about their impressions.”

Tara McNamara, a family film commentator for Fandango and founder of, says parents shouldn’t rely on just the MPAA rating to determine if a movie is appropriate for their teen. “I can think of plenty of examples when I thought a movie was not rated appropriately. But, to be fair, the organization’s guidelines are unreliable because every parent and child is different when it comes to how they will interpret content,” she says.

Parents know their children best and should base their decisions not only on the rating and accompanying descriptors, but also on their family values and their child’s maturity levels and sensitivities, says Joan Graves, head of the Classification and Rating Administration for MPAA.

“For example, while one parent might stick to the literal ratings for all their children, another might choose to take a 10-year-old to a PG-13 film for language, but not to a PG-13 film for sexual content,” she says.

One size doesn’t fit all

Osit suggests that parents assess each teen’s ability to handle mature material by considering the following questions:

  • Is he generally responsible?
  • What is her level of maturity?
  • Does he control his feelings well?
  • Does she usually use good judgment?

The bottom line is that parents make decisions based on many factors, including family values, a teen’s maturity level and religious beliefs. Therefore, there is no substitute for previewing material before your teen is exposed to it.   n

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.


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