July 25, 2001
Testimony presented to
The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Rating Entertainment Ratings: How well are they working for parents,
and what can be done to improve them?
By Laura Smit, Columbia, Maryland
My name is Laura Smit. I am the mother of an 11-year-old-girl and an 8-year-old boy. I am honored to be here today to talk about the rating systems for movies, TV shows, videogames and music, from a parents point of view.
I am, I think, an average mom. I live in a suburban Maryland neighborhood, I drive the standard minivan, Im active with two PTAs (at my sons elementary and my daughters middle school), I help out with the neighborhood swim team, and I do my share of carpooling and child-chauffeuring.
In addition to all these jobs, I have the constant burden of making daily decisions about my childrens media consumption. Every day, I have to make judgment calls about what television programs to allow them to watch; what movies they can go see; what electronic games they can play and what music they can listen to.
Every day I have to choose between being a good mom and a cool mom. When Im a good mom, I stick to my guns and say no if I have even the slightest doubt that this product might not be appropriate for my children.
When I want to be a cool mom, on the other hand, I sometimes take the risk of letting my children see or play something inappropriate & because I want my kids to fit in with their friends, or because I want my kids to be happy, or simply because Im tired of arguing. As every parent knows, you have to choose your battles.
The good mom in me looks to the current rating systems for guidance and tries to determine why a particular media product has been given the rating it has. I try to figure out whether the rating is for violence (how much? what type?), sexual content (are the people in bed, having sex? how much is shown? what kind of innuendos?), or language (is it lewd? what types of words are used? are they obscenities?).
Equally importantly, I try to figure out whether there are adult themes in this entertainment which make it inappropriate for children: themes such as incest, misogyny, rape, abortion, cold-blooded murder, or brutal killings. I believe that the ratings are determined in a rather arbitrary fashion.
Many parents find the PG-13 and TV-14 categories too broad, lacking helpful descriptive labels. PG-13 movies range from action movies (with weapons) like Lara Croft Tomb Raider, to military movies like Pearl Harbor, sexy teen movies like Bring It On, comedies with sexual references like Legally Blond and with sexual content like What Women Want, crude humor movies like The Animal, to movies with complex themes like abortion in Cider House Rules. I have noticed that PG-13 movies often have more violence in them than a lot of R movies.
With video games, as far as I can tell, a first-person-shooter game with no blood can earn a T for Teen rating. With blood, that same game would be rated M for Mature. Most mothers I know are very uncomfortable having their young sons playing first-person shooter games who made the decision that they are appropriate for teens, just because they dont show blood?
In order to try to figure out what I should allow my own children to see and hear, I have to spend considerable amounts of time reading movie reviews, looking at websites, and talking to other parents to see what they think.
But I dont always have the time or energy for all this sifting. On many days, I have to make a split-second decision, such as when a TV program comes on that I find questionable, but my son wants to see it. Or when we arrive at a movie theater and the movie we had planned to see is sold out.
The cool mom in me listens to my childrens pleas: Mom, all my friends have seen it! (or played it or bought it) or Haleys mom let her see it and she says its O.K. even for a second grader! Sometimes, the cool mom gives in, even when I know in my gut that a good mom would have said no and stood firm. So sometimes I end up feeling like a bad mom a mom who is not protecting her children enough.
But why should I be put in this position? As parents, we spend billions of dollars on entertainment products for our children. Shouldnt the companies who make so much money from parents and children make our lives easier, not harder? One reason I agreed to come speak with you today is because I am very upset by the way these companies flood my childrens lives with advertising for violent and inappropriate materials and then make me feel like a bad mom if I dont have the energy to fight my children on a daily basis.
Some of you may think that I am making a mountain out of a molehill here. Each of you can remember, I am sure, a particular forbidden movie you begged your parents to see when you were young. But there is one difference between my task as a mother today and your mothers task. The difference today is that the level of extreme violence, foul language and blatant sexual content that my children are being exposed to is on a totally different level than the fare you and I were exposed to as kids. The Lone Ranger bears no resemblance to The Power Rangers, and the wrestling you remember has no relation to the World Wrestling Federation fare.
Each movie, video game, TV program and music album seems to push the envelope just a bit further in the depiction of graphic violence, language and unhealthy sexuality. There is more blood, gore, machine guns, dead bodies and sheer mayhem in todays movies than our parents could ever have imagined, let alone let us experience.
For me, violent entertainment is neither innocuous nor harmless. It was clear to me, even before formal and respected research studies began to appear, that violent content in media products was related to increased aggressive and violent behavior in children. All over the country, schools are seeing the results of childrens consumption of violent entertainment.
We have all heard stories of kindergarten children and first-graders behaving in aggressive and violent ways toward each other. We have also heard far too many stories of children who shoot other children or even their teachers sometimes without even comprehending the finality of what they did. They seem to believe the TV stories and movies they have seen and the video games they have played -- which show characters bouncing right back to life after being bopped on the head, kicked in the stomach, or shot with a gun.
Any mother can tell you that young children cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. As I was writing this testimony, I asked a psychologist and friend, Brad Sachs, for his comments. He told me a story that gave me goose bumps.
A mother consulted with me for a psychological evaluation for her eight year-old daughter, convinced that her daughter must have been sexually abused, Brad told me. Her daughter was repeating a sexually-explicit phrase over and over again. As it turns out, her daughter had simply mimicked the words to a song shed been hearing repeatedly on one of her favorite radio stations.
Is it any wonder parents worry about what entertainment is doing to their children? It seems like on a daily basis I wonder, What will watching this movie do to my daughter? Will the sexual content in that movie give her a warped sense of what love and good relationships are all about? Is she old enough and mature enough to see this?
And Will my son act out what he sees in a violent movie? Will he end up shooting someone because he plays violent videogames? Or will he end up committing suicide, having been rejected and bullied by his peers, because I didnt let him play violent first person shooter videogames at his friends houses?
My interest in this issue led me to The Lion & Lamb Project, a parent advocacy group, which is working to inform and mobilize parents around the issue of the marketing of violent entertainment products to children. I attended a Lion & Lamb workshop for parents in 1999. The workshop and their website, lionlamb.org, opened my eyes to many issues around violent entertainment as well as the various rating systems.
This hearing is intended to consider the need for a universal ratings system. Lets look at the kinds of ratings information parents have to contend with now. I have here a handy, little flyer, which clearly lists the current ratings systems: the movie, video game, television and music system. It is small and fits neatly in my purse, but let me ask you: whos got time to pull out this accordion-length flyer and study it before making an entertainment purchase?
And what kind of information does it really give me? Lets start with the alphabet soup that parents are now required to memorize. For the movies, we have G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17. For television, we have: TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV14, and TV-MA. For video games, we have E for Everyone, T for Teen, M for Mature, RP for Rating Pending and AO for Adult Only. The music industry has a one-size-fits-all Parental Advisory.
So what do all these letters really mean? Could somebody please tell me: where is the line between PG-13 and R? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) website states: PG-13 parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. What material, I wonder?
I go deeper into the MPAA site and find this helpful explanation: A PG-13 film is one which, in the view of the Rating Board, leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category. Leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating? And what are those boundaries?
Several parents I spoke to thought Planet of the Apes is an R-rated movie, based on the scary previews they saw with their children. I know others who thought last years James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough, was definitely R-material. On the other hand, Billy Elliot is a movie many of my friends thought was a good movie to see with their kids, but it was rated R because it had too many f words. How am I as a mother to make heads or tails of such a system?
And lets look at the video game rating system. Here is how the Entertainment Software Rating Board describes T games: Content may be suitable for persons ages 13 and older. May contain violent content, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes. How much violent content? As a mother, I could use a little more help.
I would like to request the Chairmans permission to demonstrate a Teen-rated video game called Time Crisis at the end of my presentation. To my uneducated mothers eye, this Teen game is nothing but a first-person shooter but you can judge for yourself later. To play this game, a teen points a so-called light gun at the television set, and shoots human-looking characters on the screen. That is the entire point of this game there is no other action, no other choices. Just shoot and kill.
How is this teen game different from Mature-rated first-person-shooters such as Duke Nukem, Quake and Doom? As a mother, I would like to know the answer. From what teenage boys tell me, the difference is that this game has no blood. If it had blood spurting from all these dead bodies, then it would be an adult game. Does this make sense to you?
As far as I am concerned, there are basically two problems with the current ratings system. The first is the issue you are already concerned with. The fact that there are too many different ratings system for parents to keep up with. There is definitely a need for one ratings system, especially as these media converge through the internet and other technologies.
(Video games are already becoming more like movies, and movies are being made of video games. And movies, video games as well as music are now being delivered through the internet. Furthermore, many companies of the same companies now create and deliver music, movies and video games. So industry can no longer claim that these products are unique and incomparable.)
The second, and equally important issue, is that each of the current rating systems is controlled by the industry itself. Most parents I know are not happy with the current movie ratings system, because it does not give us nearly enough information. Same for the other ratings system. What parents need, I believe, is uniform ratings created by people who really care about the needs of both children and parents: professionals such as psychologists, teachers, pediatricians, guidance counselors, early childhood experts, and others.
As a mother I would appreciate a clear, descriptive labeling system in addition to the age and parental guidance descriptors. The labels would be the equivalent of the government-mandated labels on food. When my son asks me if he can have Haagen Dazs ice cream, I know that he would be ingesting 11 grams of saturated fat, 120 milligrams of cholesterol, and 21 grams of sugar. Knowing these facts, I can choose whether to let him eat it or not.
My children consume a steady diet of entertainment products. Clear labels would provide me with concrete reasons for making a decision. This decision might be different for each of my two children, just as it might be for each of their friends. I have noticed that children vary a lot in their maturity levels, and what they can take in at a particular age. When it comes to violent shows, some children get scared, some act out, others are fine & but we cant always see the damage that was caused.
With uniform labels on all entertainment products movies, TV shows, videogames and music -- it would still be my choice as a parent whether my children should consume a product or not. But labels would make it much easier for me to give my children good reasons why something is not appropriate for them.
Going along with a good labeling system, I would also need information on what the effects of the particular labels could be. If I knew something would be harmful to my child, I would be much more careful about letting him or her see it. Going back to the food example, I know why it is bad to eat foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium. I would like to have the same type of information for the effects of entertainment products.
That is why I would want this labeling system to be developed by child development experts, not by the entertainment industries. Having descriptive labeling of entertainment products would really put the guidance into Parental Guidance. Parents are not one monolithic group. Every parent has different values and beliefs. The messages each individual parent received about sex, violence and language when he or she was growing up all play into the type of guidance they will give their children.
Some parents are concerned primarily with sexual content, others worry more about the effects of viewing violence, still others focus more on language and the obscenities their children will be exposed to. What is OK for one parent may be totally unacceptable for another. The entertainment industries keep saying that its up to the parents to make decisions but we dont have the tools we need to make those decisions.
Let me give you an example of how poorly the current ratings system works. Last week, I went to see the movie Shrek rated PG -- with my 8-year old son. As always, we had to sit through the previews, which according to MPAA are approved for all audiences.
So before Shrek, my son and I were subjected to a preview for Evolution -- PG13-rated film. My son was terrified during this trailer, which was clearly not appropriate for him. That night, he was so scared as the images kept coming back to him that he had to sleep in my room. And my son is not the only one Ive recently read Joanne Cantors book Mommy Im Scared, which relates stories of many many children who have the same experience.
A few days later, when my children turned the TV on to watch a Rugrats special, they were subjected to a preview for the new movie Planet of the Apes, rated PG-13. Rugrats is a show watched primarily by young children. Why advertise a violent, scary PG-13 movie during a cartoon program watched by the under-10 set? I found it incredibly hypocritical, by the way, that at the end of the preview there was a loud voice-over announcement proclaiming: Parents Strongly Cautioned.
Ive talked to many parents who feel that TV advertising for upcoming shows definitely needs some reform. Frequently, my children will be watching a TV-Y7 show and they will be subjected to commercials for upcoming shows rated TV-14 and TV-MA, as well movies rated PG-13 and R.
These ads frequently contain sexual content and/or violence. As a parent, I find it extremely frustrating that these shows and movies are being pointedly marketed to children and young teens. Do you have any idea how hard it is to say no to a show for which my child has seen more than 20 commercials? Again, why should I as a parent be put in this position? Why cant the entertainment industries be held to at least the same level of responsibility that they expect from parents?
I dont believe that R-rated movies should be advertised before 9 pm, nor should they be advertised during G and TV-14 shows. I also dont like to see previews for movies rated higher than the feature film I am taking my children to see. So if Im paying for a G-or PG-rated movie, I dont want my child to be exposed to previews for PG-13 or R-rated movies.
And movies and television are not the only media I have to worry about. There is also the radio. Just last week, as we drove home from a movie, my 11-year old daughter began hopping between her three favorite radio stations, 102.7 FM , 104.1 FM and 99.5 FM . These are the three stations all her friends listen to.
I found myself listening to popular songs about being caught butt-naked making love on the bathroom floor and another asking to have sex in French (voulez vous coucher avec moi?). A few days later, I was flabbergasted to hear my third-grade son singing the words to City Highs song, What would you do?
What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor, and the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money, and his daddys gone, he sang. When I told him not to sing those words out loud, that they werent nice, he just told me he liked the beat. So now we cant listen to the radio, either?
The music industry, which I believe lags behind the other industries in terms of rating their products, seems to think that having an all-purpose Parental Advisory warning label is enough. But as with other media, parents need more information before they can responsibly decide whether a particular music CD is appropriate for their child.
Parents new to having a teenager may hear the radio version of songs, such as Eminems Slim Shady, and think that the CD version will be the same. It wont be. Just try finding one of the cleaned up versions at your local record store it wont be easy. And even if you do manage to land one of the clean versions, you may still be shocked as to the words and themes that are left.
My husband and I experienced this recently with Eminems Marshall Mathers CD, which my daughter purchased with her own money (this was before all the publicity). We put the CD in the player as we were driving home -- and were frankly horrified. We immediately told our daughter that she just couldnt have the CD, explained why, and gave her back her money. She felt very embarrassed about the incident. It was a big lesson for us also, and we now ask her to print out the lyrics of the songs on an album from the web before well let her buy the CD. But again is it fair to make parents, consumers, do all the work here??
I would like to make one thing clear here -- I am not opposed to any artist producing any movie, video game or lyric that they want, for adult consumption. What I am strongly opposed to is the marketing of blatantly adult-oriented products to children. As a country, we no longer market cigarettes, alcohol or pornography to children. We know enough now about the effect of violent entertainment on childrens behavior to know that viewing violence leads to increased violent behavior, especially among children.
As a mother, I ask this Senate committee to consider just how difficult the current ratings and marketing issues are, particularly in light of the public health findings. And make no mistake about it the two issues are very closely intertwined.
I know that here are no simple answers, and no magic pills. But our country, more than 30 years ago, managed to put a man on the moon. So in the year 2001, is it too much to ask that our elected officials and corporate leaders help find a way to label our childrens entertainment products for what they are?
Yes, parents need to exercise responsibility. But to do a half-way decent job, we need help. We need honest ratings. The First Amendment does not stand in the way of food labels, or cigarette warning labels & or accurate labels on entertainment products.
Thank you for taking your time to listen to one parents point-of-view. I hope that this congressional hearing will be the beginning of much needed changes in the entertainment industries rating systems. The improvements I have suggested would be welcomed with open arms by the parents who struggle every day to bring up their children to be peace-loving, responsible, and healthy citizens working towards a more civil society.