Ratings Reality: Who rates our media and what that means for children

By Kristelle Lavallee, staff member at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health

Are you looking to take the family to a movie but aren’t sure whether your child should see The Hunger Games (PG-13) or Bully (unrated)? If you base the decision on the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) ratings, the answer seems pretty cut and dry—“maybe” to Hunger Games, and “no” to Bully. But are the movie ratings the best guide to making healthy media choices for your children?

Based on the best-selling novel, The Hunger Games is a fantasy story where teenagers are pitted against each other in a battle to the death broadcast on live TV. In contrast, Bully is a “slice of life” documentary about peer-on-peer bullying in American schools.

Both movies center on children and teenagers, but the fictional Hunger Games, portraying “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images” (MPAA’s description) was given a PG-13 rating, while the documentary Bully with “some language” (MPAA again) was rated R. The producers of Bully knew that accepting an R rating would greatly limit the film’s impact as an educational tool for young viewers, so they chose to release it unrated. But when a film is released without an MPAA rating, it comes at a price: Fewer theaters are willing to show it, and those that do will treat it the same way they treat films unrated for extreme violence or sex.

Clearly the MPAA has a lot of power in terms of how many people will be able to see a film, but who really applies these standards, and what criteria do they use?

The MPAA is made up of six major American movie studios and serves as the “voice and advocate” for the film and television industry. That means the MPAA is the tool that media producers use to govern themselves and represent their interests to the government and public. Since 1968, the MPAA has assigned movie ratings, which it claims “exists to give parents clear, concise information about a film’s content, in order to help them determine whether a movie is suitable for their children.”

Movie poster for the film Bully

Sounds like a useful tool. But it is important to remember that the primary goals of the MPAA studios are to protect their movies from external restrictions and to attract as many ticket buyers as possible. The MPAA decides the criteria on which ratings decisions are made, chooses the members of the ratings board, and administers the ratings in partnership with the National Association of Theater Owners, many of whom will not show any film that is unrated.

So who does the MPAA employ to make these decisions? Parents. Film ratings are not assigned by child psychologists, educators, pediatricians, or anyone with child development credentials, but by a full-time board of eight to 13 parents whose only qualifying credential is that they have at least one child between the age of 5 and 17. (And even that is loosely applied—for an in-depth look at the ratings process, see the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.)

According to the MPAA, the job of the ratings board is to “reflect what they believe would be the majority view of their fellow American parents in assigning a rating to a film.” In short, our film ratings are determined by the opinions of a few parents on what their peers will find socially acceptable.

But research has shown that this system has been inconsistent. For example, one study found that the amount of violent content allowed in PG-13 rated films significantly increased from the late 1980s until the mid 2000s, resulting in a shift of one full rating level every 11 years. Both this and other studies concluded that child development and health care professionals should participate in assigning ratings, so the decision-making can combine parental opinions with research-based guidance.

Since each child will interpret and react to on-screen action differently, parental input about what is and isn’t best for children to see is still essential. A film like Bully may be considered R material by the MPAA, but can be accepted, even embraced by parents who understand the film’s important message. At the same time, despite the MPAA’s reassurance that viewing does not require adult supervision, The Hunger Games story of children being forced to kill other children may be too potent for young viewers, even those that have read the book. These nuances aren’t captured by ratings.

For that reason, the ratings system can be used, at best, as a starting point—and then parents can take into account the individual child, media content and expert advice to help them choose what to share with their children.

Update added after original publishing:

On April 5th, The Weinstein Company announced that the documentary, Bully, will be released with a PG-13 rating. The announcement follows an agreement that Weinstein Co. made with the MPAA to re-cut the film. As a result, Bully editors removed the audio on three obscenities, however, the controversial school bus scene that features three F-words (uttered by children) remained untouched. The new cut of Bully makes the film an exception to the MPAA’S standard of giving an R rating to any film that features the F-word more than twice.

The new PG-13 rated version of Bully allows all children to see the film without an adult. The rated version will also be shown in most major theater chains, which typically have policies against showing unrated movies.  Bully opens nationwide on April 13th.

For other helpful resources on making these choices, please visit the Center on Media and Child Health at: http://www.cmch.tv/

You can also ask Children’s Hospital Boston’s own ‘Mediatrician’ at: www.askthemediatrician.org

For useful parent-friendly film reviews, try: http://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/