When my grandpa, Leland, was 10 years-old, sugar was hard to come by, so sweets were particularly special. On one occasion, Leland was left alone while his parents were preparing to entertain company. Seizing this opportunity, he decided to make fudge in order to surprise his parents when they came back. So he gathered all the ingredients, whipped them together, and hid the fudge in the basement. After dinner that night, Leland proudly brought up his chocolate fudge and presented it to his parents and guests. His aunt was the first to try a piece. As she bit into the fudge, she exclaimed, “Why Bertha (Leland’s mother), this is simply marvelous! But wherever did you get the nuts?” Upon investigation it was discovered that Leland had not included nuts in his recipe. Rather, a stink-bug had crawled into the fudge while it had been uncovered in the basement, and auntie had bit right into it. Poor Leland’s fudge had to be thrown out, and the story of the stink-bug fudge became a legend in my family.
Media today is a lot like my Grandpa Leland’s fudge. Our society enjoys a lot of entertainment that is good and uplifting. But entertainment is also becoming risky for many individuals and families, including hidden “stink-bugs” such as sex, drugs, violence, and expletives.
Why it Matters
Multiple studies show that media influences our behavior. The entire advertising industry is built around the belief that what we watch impacts what we do. Advertising has proven successful at altering behavior (Gonten, Donius, 1997). That is why there are endless amounts of radio, television, and internet ads.
But media exposure has further effects that extend to more than just our buying habits. Obesity, low self-image and less physical activity all correspond to the amount of television being viewed. Correlations also exist between aggression, desensitization and the time spent watching violent media. And studies confirm that media can have a positive influence on behavior. Gentile, Maier, Hasson, and Bonetti (2011), cite a study in which the viewing of Sesame Street was positively correlated with children’s readiness for school.
Because emotion and behavior are influenced by media, we must be able to recognize inappropriate media so it can be avoided. There are already many tools which individuals and families employ to determine quality of media. Some tools that are frequently used are ratings. But media ratings, while helpful, do not provide a clear enough picture to consistently make informed choices.
Overall, ratings have been helpful for individuals and families, and the age-based standards do offer some insight into content. But here’s the problem: standards for these rating systems are not consistent across industry or time, nor do they give adequate descriptions of content. In other words, each industry is creating its own version of “fudge” without telling people what’s in it. And slowly, more and more “stink-bugs” are finding their way into the final products.
For example, the current movie rating system was implemented in 1968. Since then, the television, gaming, and music industries have also added their own age-based rating systems. (Funk et al, 2009). Ratings for gaming, music, and movies are voluntary (Funk et al, 2009). The RIAA affords an optional Parental Advisory Warning for the music industry – and it gives no description of music content. It is strictly voluntary for artists and recording companies so that they may “have greater freedom of expression.”
Ratings also tend to become less strict over time. This has been called “ratings creep”. Gentile et al. cite that “one study of about 2000 films found that a film rated PG-13 in 2003 included approximately the same amount of violence, nudity, and offensive language as an R-rated film of 10 years before” (2011).
This makes it harder to decide what media to enjoy. Parents want ratings, but they don’t feel the current rating systems provide accurate or adequate information. It is especially difficult to find a standard rating system, because everyone has their own opinion of what is appropriate (Gentile et al, 2011).
I recently talked to a young teen about games he plays on his iPod device. One of the games my young friend had downloaded included The Sims – a virtual reality game in which individuals create and control 3D avatars able to interact with each other. I was shocked that he had been given permission to download this game since I knew of its reputation for explicit content and I also knew of his parents’ aversion to such material. Funk et al (2009) found that while most parents understand the importance of monitoring children’s media, they don’t know where to find reliable information about content. Here are some suggestions for individuals and parents:
First, get to know what the ratings mean. Rating information can be found at the following websites:
- Video games and apps rated by the ESRB: http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp
- Movies rated by the MPAA: http://www.mpaa.org/ratings/what-each-rating-means
- Music advisory by the RIAA: http://www.riaa.com/toolsforparents.php?content_selector=parental_advisory
- Television ratings by the Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board: http://www.tvguidelines.org/ratings.htm
In addition to those sources, there are several web sites which contain much more in-depth descriptions and recommendations. For example, I found this information about The Sims from www.commonsensemedia.org:
Parents need to know that The Sims 3 is a complicated life simulation game that requires a significant time investment. Based on the very popular PC game, players create a realistic 3D avatar, including personality traits, and direct its interactions with other characters in a fictional town. Sims can be vain, mean, messy, and neurotic, or friendly and modest, or a combination of good and bad traits. Sometimes, just like in real life, Sims can find themselves in tense situations. They can fall in love and jump into bed together, and they can die.
An excellent source for detailed movie descriptions can be accessed at http://www.kids-in-mind.com/. And www.pluggledin.com also provides some decent descriptions for music, movies, and television. A helpful website for books (which currently don’t have a rating board) can be found here: http://ratedreads.com/. Additional information can be gathered from friends.
Because media content has become so risky with so few indicators – much like fudge-covered stink-bugs – individuals and families need to dedicate time to understand the media they select. But unlike stink-bug fudge, media alters our behavior. We can change families, and communities for the better through positive media. But we can only do this if we are informed.
Samantha Anderson is studying psychology at Brigham Young University-Idaho. One of her greatest passions is learning, then being able to share that information with others. She hopes to become a high school teacher someday.