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Study Says Parents' Media Exposure Trickles Down To Children

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How old should kids be before they watch movies featuring sex and violence? The answer to that question has evolved quite a bit over the years according to the Motion Picture Association of America. But a new study sought to test that claim, and as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, researchers were surprised by how much parents have been affected by seeing on screen sex and violence.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The study was a response to the movie industry's increasing emphasis on violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'll blow his brains out.

(GUNSHOTS)

ULABY: Here's a little background. Last year, researchers at the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania released a study. It showed the amount of violence in popular PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985. And, says Doctor Daniel Romer, they learned there's more gun violence in popular PG-13 movies than in popular R-rated ones.

DANIEL ROMER: That, you know, is a major source of concern for us. And the Motion Picture Association of America, which is the trade organization of the film industry, claims that the reason that's happening is because parents are becoming more accepting.

ULABY: And the MPAA relies on parents' recommendations for its ratings. Annenberg researchers decided to test that thesis that parents had become more accepting. Romer's team asked a thousand parents how old a kid should be to watch violent or sexual content, then showed them short clips from movies like "Die Hard" and "The Terminator."

ROMER: So the first clip we showed them, they said, oh, I think a 17-year-old would be okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

ROMER: And then the second clip - a 16-year-old.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

ROMER: And then by the time we had - we showed them six clips. By the time we got to the fourth, fifth and sixth, they were down around 14.

ULABY: 14 years old - down from 17 years old in just a matter of minutes.

ROMER: So what we were surprised to see is how quickly they became what we call less sensitized.

ULABY: Romer says parents who saw movie clips with violence became more accepting of sex scenes and vice versa.

ROMER: So we think this has major implications for how we rate movies and whether or not all of this violence that's now also migrating n to T.V. is good for us or not.

ULABY: Spoiler - he doesn't think it is. The MPAA had no comment on the new study, but Romer thinks it might be time for movies to be rated by an independent panel that could push back against was called ratings creep. The clips he showed parents from the original "Terminator" and "Die Hard" were rated R. Clips he showed form more recent "Die Hard" and "Terminator" movies were just as violent, but rated PG-13. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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