Headlines about how violence and sex in movies is out of control? Must be Monday. Screen Rant readers may recall a recent study which showed that the rates of scenes with gun violence in PG-13 movies had actually surpassed the amount of gun violence shown in R rated movies, leading many to question whether or not it’s appropriate to include such content in entertainment marketed towards teens, and the debate is far from over.

The lines between PG-13 movies and R rated movies are difficult to draw, since the teenage years are widely considered to be those in which children are gradually introduced to the concepts of sex, violence, alcohol, smoking and other risky behaviors. The big question – for which there is no one-size-fits-all answer – is that of how gradually these things should be introduced.

According to a new study published in academic journal Pediatrics, Hollywood is currently peddling too much and to too young an audience. The study, which was carried out at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at 390 top-grossing movies that were released between 1985 and 2010 and analyzed them for their content of sex, violence, tobacco and alcohol use.

90% of the movies included in the study contained at least one instance of a character engaging in violence, with violence defined as, “intentional acts (e.g. to cause harm, to coerce, or for fun) where the aggressor attempts or attempts to make some physical contact that has potential to inflict injury or harm.” In short, a movie that showed the main character attempting to punch another character and missing would qualify as “violent” even if no other instances of violence were shown. This definition somewhat dampens the shock value of 88.6% of G or PG movies containing “scenes of violence.”

The researchers then also coded films for their sexual content and portrayals of alcohol and tobacco use, in particular looking at the co-occurrence of such behaviors. Unsurprisingly, 77.4% of films that showed a main character committing an act of violence also included at least one other type of risky behavior. Trends of each type of mature content have stayed fairly consistent between 1985 and 2010, the only dramatic change being that the portrayal of tobacco use has dropped considerably (especially, now that the MPAA includes “smoking” in its ratings).

Much of the study’s results can easily be manipulated to sound more scandalous than they actually are. For example, there are more PG-13 movies (85%) than R rated movies (80.7%) with sexual content (gasp!), but the “sexual content” badge can be achieved by one character chastely kissing another character on the lips with no other kind of contact between them. 73.9% of PG-13 movies were found to contain “explicit violence,” where explicit violence was defined as a character being shown with blood, bruising or any other kind of injury. When violence was combined with other risky behaviors like sex and alcohol use, the frequency was sometimes greater in PG-13 movies than in R rated movies – if, of course, you don’t account for explicitness of the content.

So, why is this a problem? Perhaps the question should be: is it a problem at all? The authors of the study seem to think so, but as with the previous study on the portrayals of gun violence, this latest work fails to provide evidence of any real world effects of portraying violence, sex and alcohol drinking in teen movies. The connections drawn between the study’s results and actual instances of risky behavior in teens are limited to this somewhat vague and tenuous statement:

“Evidence shows that adolescents do engage in clusters of risk(y) behaviors, with their participation increasing with age. The role media play in the clustering of risky behaviors, including violence, is unknown… Youth, particularly those with impulsive sensation-seeking tendencies, may be at elevated risk for unhealthy behaviors as a result of their media exposure to problematic content.”

When a study like this is published, there’s often an instinctive urge to point to television, movies, music, comic books or video games as the cause for the current epidemic of youth crime, STDs and teen pregnancy – often without first checking whether there actually is an epidemic. As we noted last time, the rate of violent crime in the USA is currently at an all-time low, and the rate of youth crime is the lowest it has been in over thirty years.

Similarly, while the rates of teen pregnancy in the USA are higher than in many other developed countries (note that those countries also have access to violent and sexy movies), teen birth rates in the USA fell to historic lows in 2011. The rates of people being diagnosed with STDs has increased, though the CDC notes that in some cases this may be due to increased screenings and more sensitive tests. Arguably a more effective way to combat climbing STD rates would be to raise awareness about contraceptive methods, rather than ensuring that Hawkeye and Black Widow aren’t seen getting too cozy.

Even without any evidence of bad behavior on screen leading to bad behavior in real life, some would still argue that the portrayal of sex, violence and risky behavior in our creative media is indicative of some kind of cultural sickness; even THR describes Hollywood as being “obsessed” with sex and violence.

It’s important to remember, however, that Hollywood did not invent the idea of putting sex, violence and debauchery into stories. The “obsession” with this kind of subject matter has been around for millennia, ever since the first cave paintings showed stick men throwing spears at fleeing animals. Conflict is a nearly essential tool for any storyteller, and conflict often manifests itself in violent behavior. Since everybody eventually dies, almost everyone has sex and a lot of people will drink alcohol at some point in their lives, the portrayal of these things in our media is probably less to do with any kind of sick or dangerous obsession, and more to do with writers writing what they know.

More importantly, such subject matter wouldn’t be on our screens at all if audiences didn’t want to see it. Violence is very closely tied up with action, and action is often what gets our adrenaline pumping when watching a movie. People who put down money to watch Man of Steel probably don’t actually want to see buildings destroyed any more than the people who get on freefall rides at a theme park want to jump off a building; they just enjoy the rush that comes with the simulation.

Should the rum be gone?

In conclusion, the portrayal of sex, violence, drinking and smoking in our movies probably isn’t going to cause society to break down, nor is it leading to any kind of clearly observable negative real world effects. The matter of how such films should be rated, however, is somewhat more complicated since the question of what age it’s appropriate to start introducing such things to children is a grey area.

Most parents will set their own limitations when it comes to what they’ll allow their children to watch, and sites like Kids in Mind are a great resource for determining the frequency and intensity of sex, violence and risky material in movies. Thanks to the power of the internet, finding out about potentially problematic content ahead of time is easier than it’s ever been.

Those are our two cents, but weigh in with your thoughts in the comments. Is Hollywood becoming dangerously obsessed with sex, violence and risky behavior, and what kind of impact – if any – could it have on children? Is the current ratings system satisfactory, or could it benefit from some re-evaluation?

Source: Pediatrics (via THR)