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The negative impact of violent film characters on teens

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Most would agree that many of today’s popular movies contain violent characters who portray alcohol, sex, and tobacco-related behaviors. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) conducted a study that evaluated the impact of these violent characters on teens. They published their findings on December 9 in the journal Pediatrics.

The goal of the study was to evaluate the extent that movies popular with adolescents featured characters who engaged in violence and other risk behaviors. They theorized that violent characters engage in other risk behaviors equally often in films that are rated appropriate for children over 12 (PG-13) and Restricted (R)-rated films. The researchers evaluated 390 top-grossing movies from 1985 through 2010. They coded movies for the presence of at least one main character who was involved in violence and either sex, tobacco, or alcohol use within a five-minute movie segment and throughout a film.

The investigators found that approximately 90% of the movies contained a segment with a main character involved in violence; furthermore, approximately 77% of the films had the same character engaging in at least one other risk behavior. A violent character was portrayed most often taking part in alcohol-related or sexual behaviors. G and PG movies had less of this type of material than PG-13 or R-rated movies; however, they found no significant difference in the amount of this material between PG-13 and R-rated movies in regard to violence coexisting with other risk behaviors. These trends did not vary over time (1985 through 2010).

The authors concluded that popular films that contain violent characters also present those characters engaging in other risk behaviors. They stressed that "the similar rates of co-occurrence between PG-13 and R-rated films suggest that the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system is not sensitive to the joint portrayal of violence and alcohol, sex, and tobacco-related risk behaviors.” They noted that this situation was a subject of concern and recommended that further research should be conducted regarding the on-screen bundling of violence with other risk behaviors.

Take home message:
This paper pointed out the widespread presence of violence and other risk behaviors and that, surprisingly, their presence was similar between PG-13 and R-rated films. Currently, many are of the opinion that this type of material contributes to violent acts such as massacres in our schools. It is also likely to contribute to teens engaging in smoking, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior.

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