June 22nd, 2011
Parents see flaws in media ratings: study
Only a minority of parents feel the age-based ratings for movies, TV shows and video games are usually accurate, a new study suggests.
In surveys of nearly 2,300 U.S. parents, researchers found that between 41 percent and 46 percent thought the age ratings for movies, TV shows and video games were at least “usually” accurate.
Only about 5 percent thought they “always” were, according to findings published in the journal Pediatrics.
The researchers say the issue is that parents—probably not surprisingly—do not agree on what types of media content are OK for a child at a given age.
Instead, many parents may prefer to get more specific information on the content and then decide the age-appropriateness for themselves.
“Basically, parents really never agree on the minimum age-appropriateness,” said lead researcher Douglas A. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University in Ames.
“They want more content information,” he told Reuters Health in an interview.
Some past studies have found that parents often do not pay much attention to media ratings systems. According to Gentile, the current findings suggest a reason: Many parents don’t think the ratings are accurate or useful.
However, a researcher not involved in the study doubted that the findings offer a “mandate” for change.
“I’m not sure these data show that parents are dying for a new ratings system,” said Christopher J. Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University who has studied media violence and kids’ aggression (and found no link).
A flaw in this study, Ferguson said in an interview, is that it depended on three online surveys done several years ago.
“When you invite people to take an online survey, you’re likely to draw the people who are upset about something,” Ferguson said.
And even with the risk of such a “sampling bias,” he added, close to half of parents in the study apparently thought the current ratings systems were usually accurate.
In one of his own studies, Ferguson had independent observers rate a sampling of TV shows and video games, based on violent content. He found that, at least when it came to violence, the shows’ and games’ existing ratings matched well with the independent raters’ take.
“They were actually very accurate,” said Ferguson, who also noted that he gets no industry funding for his research.
As it stands, the different media ratings systems have their own age-based categories. TV shows come with ratings like “TV-14” ("parents strongly cautioned") and “TV-G” (suitable for a “general audience"); they also have some content descriptors—like “V” for violence, and “S” for sexual situations.
Video games go further, with packaging that provides age ratings (like “E” for “everyone") and a bigger variety of content descriptors ("blood and gore” and “strong language,” to name a couple).
But Gentile said his study shows many parents want more information than that—and that they would support a universal system which rates all media the same way.
In one of the surveys used by Gentile’s team, parents were given a list of specific types of TV content. The descriptions were fairly detailed: “violence,” for instance, was broken down into 10 situations, ranging from “scary” images to graphic violence and sexual crimes.
The researchers found that for about half of the content descriptions they presented to parents, a majority agreed they would keep a child from viewing it.
When parents were asked if they would like a universal ratings system, a little more than half said they would at least “somewhat” support it.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board, set up by the video game industry to assign ratings, defended its system.
Along with the content information on the game box, the ESRB website (http://www.esrb.org) gives parents “ratings summaries” with detailed content information, the group’s president, Patricia Vance, said in a written response to the study.
She also pointed to other research, including surveys by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, suggesting that the majority of parents do find the existing ratings helpful.
Vance described the current study as a “rehash of extremely dated surveys” that were originally commissioned by a “now-defunct advocacy group.”
That group was the National Institute on Media and the Family, a non-profit media watchdog that closed in 2009. Gentile was the group’s director of research.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and some other groups have come out in favor of a universal ratings system for all forms of media. And Gentile said the current findings suggest that many parents would be in favor.
With the move toward media “convergence”—wherein people will get their TV shows, movies and videos on one device—Gentile said “the time has come” to work on a universal ratings system.
“Parents are ready for something different,” he said.
But Ferguson thinks a universal system is unworkable, and not likely to be any more helpful to parents.
“How is it going to work? Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it?” he said.
For now, Ferguson suggested that parents who want more information than the current ratings system offers try reading reviews for the movies, TV shows or video games in question.
Those, he contended, often provide plenty of details that may help parents decide what’s OK for their kids.
“To a large extent,” Ferguson said, “I just have faith in myself, as a parent, to make these decisions.”