Pediatrics study: TV Ratings System Downplays Sex, Violence, Smoking

30 Aug

Some one told moi a story about a woman who wanted to introduce her 12 year old son to culture. The way she set about the introduction was to buy tickets for the entire Ring by Wagner. Perhaps, her son thoroughly enjoyed the Ring. More likely, he probably developed a hatred for opera. About the time that school starts around the beginning of September, many arts organizations begin their season. It is good to introduce your child to all types of artistic endeavors, but one should chose wisely by looking for cues as to what the child’s interests are and having an awareness of content. Barbara J. Wilson, Ph.D. wrote the thoughtful article, What’s Wrong with the Ratings?

Education News reported in Report: TV Ratings System Downplays Sex, Violence, Smoking:

A new study recently published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that the TV rating system currently in place in the United States is inaccurate and does not always reflect the true amount of violence, smoking, and drinking occurring in television shows.

The study found TV Parental Guidelines ratings to be ineffective in three out of the four behaviors studied.  In addition, at least one risk factor was noted in every show, including shows for children as young as seven.

In all, researchers looked at 17 TV shows for instances of violence, sexual behavior, alcohol use, and smoking.  Findings suggest shows that held a rating of TV-Y7, intended for children age seven or older, had similar levels of violence as shows rated TV-MA, meant for mature audiences only.

“From prior research, we know that youth between 8 and 18 years consume, on average, 7.5 hours a day of media content,” said Joy Gabrielli, lead author of the study and a clinical child psychologist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

Gabrielli added that young children and teens watch shows on televisions as well as on additional forms of digital media, such as telephones and tablets.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated the creation of a TV rating system and a hardware, or V-chip, that would allow parents to block any questionable content.  As a result, the TV Parental Guidelines were created in addition to a monitoring board to ensure accuracy, uniformity, and consistency of the guidelines, reports Susan Scutti for CNN.

Violence was found in 70% of all episodes looked at for at least 2.3 seconds per episode minute.  Meanwhile alcohol was seen in 58% of episodes for 2.3 seconds per minute, sexual behavior in 53% of shows for 0.26 seconds per minute, and smoking in 31% of shows for 0.54 seconds per minute.

Shows rated TV-Y7 were found to show significantly less substance abuse.  However, other rating categories did not discriminate substance use as well, which was seen as much in shows rated TV-14 as they were in shows rated TV-MA.

TV ratings were found to be the most effective for sexual behavior and gory violence.

See, TV rating system not accurate, little help to parents, study says


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August 2016

Industry Television Ratings for Violence, Sex, and Substance Use

Joy Gabrielli, Aminata Traore, Mike Stoolmiller, Elaina Bergamini, James D. Sargent

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OBJECTIVE: To examine whether the industry-run television (TV) Parental Guidelines discriminate on violence, sexual behavior, alcohol use, and smoking in TV shows, to assess their usefulness for parents.

METHODS: Seventeen TV shows (323 episodes and 9214 episode minutes) across several TV show rating categories (TVY7, TVPG, TV14, and TVMA) were evaluated. We content-coded the episodes, recording seconds of each risk behavior, and we rated the salience of violence in each one. Multilevel models were used to test for associations between TV rating categories and prevalence of risk behaviors across and within episodes or salience of violence.

RESULTS: Every show had at least 1 risk behavior. Violence was pervasive, occurring in 70% of episodes overall and for 2.3 seconds per episode minute. Alcohol was also common (58% of shows, 2.3 seconds per minute), followed by sex (53% of episodes, 0.26 seconds per minute), and smoking (31% of shows, 0.54 seconds per minute). TV Parental Guidelines did not discriminate prevalence estimates of TV episode violence. Although TV-Y7 shows had significantly less substance use, other categories were poor at discriminating substance use, which was as common in TV-14 as TV-MA shows. Sex and gory violence were the only behaviors demonstrating a graded increase in prevalence and salience for older-child rating categories.

CONCLUSIONS: TV Parental Guidelines ratings were ineffective in discriminating shows for 3 out of 4 behaviors studied. Even in shows rated for children as young as 7 years, violence was prevalent, prominent, and salient. TV ratings were most effective for identification of sexual behavior and gory violence.

What’s Known on This Subject:

A voluntary, industry-run TV Parental Guidelines rating system has existed for 20 years to help parents decide which shows are appropriate for children; yet the usefulness of TV ratings in discriminating shows on risk-behavior depiction remains unclear.

What This Study Adds:

Violence was prevalent across all shows, regardless of rating, so parents could not rely on TV Parental Guidelines to screen for this behavior. Only TV-7 consistently predicted lower levels of sex, alcohol, or tobacco, compared with TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA.

Almost 20 years have passed since Congress approved the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In Section 551 (“Parental Choice in Television Programming”), Congress noted: (1) “television influences children’s perceptions of values and behavior common and acceptable in society,” (2) “television shows expose children to many depictions of violence,” (3) “children so exposed are prone to see violence as acceptable and have greater tendency for aggressive behavior,” (4) “casual treatment of sexual material on television erodes parental ability to develop responsible attitudes and behavior in their children,” (5) “parents express grave concern over violent and sexual programming,” and (6) “there is compelling governmental interest in empowering parents to limit these negative influences.”1 Congress instructed the telecommunications industry to develop a television (TV) ratings system and TV manufacturers to integrate hardware (the V-chip) to allow parents to block objectionable content

The TV industry responded that year with the TV Parental Guidelines, structured around a similar self-regulatory system previously developed for motion pictures. Shows are rated by the companies that produce them and classified into rating categories based on content and appropriateness for different age groups. The industry established a TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board to “ensure accuracy, uniformity, and consistency of the guidelines.”2 The rating categories were integrated into programming to allow parents to see the rating for each show and to block by rating (or channel) using V-chip technology.

In the ensuing 20 years, research confirms the prescience of Congress’ expressed concerns. Studies have identified relations between viewing media violence and aggression in children.3,4 Prospective studies have strengthened the notion that viewing sexual content on TV affects risky sexual behavior among adolescents and increases the risk of teen pregnancy.5,6 Moreover, studies have documented a robust relation between seeing depictions of smoking and drinking in movies and youth substance use.710 Subsequently, concerns about media effects on youth behavior appear even more justified by the science, and research suggests that parental guidelines should include behaviors beyond sex and violence, such as alcohol and tobacco use.11

As stated in their own documentation, the TV industry recognized that the usefulness of the TV Parental Guidelines for informing parents would be based in part on their “accuracy, uniformity and consistency.”2 In a literature search on “TV Parental Guidelines” we were able to identify studies that either examined, through content coding, the presence of various risk behaviors1214 or how parents perceive and use the ratings system,1517 but were surprised to find limited tests of its accuracy, uniformity, or consistency across risk behaviors. The present research is a first attempt to quantify violence, sex, and alcohol and tobacco use in a sample of TV programs according to the TV Parental Guideline rating category.


We selected TV shows across 4 rating categories (ie, TV-Y7, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA) as defined by the TV Parental Guidelines.2 TV-Y7 is defined as being “directed to older children” (age 7 years and above). TV-PG is defined as “parental guidance suggested” and may “contain material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children.” TV-14 is denoted as “parents strongly cautioned,” as it is a program that “contains material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age.” TV-MA is listed as “mature audience only,” because it is a program “specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.” Seven shows were purposively chosen because they were popular with youth (identified through the Nielsen list of shows most popular with youth aged 12–17 years), and 10 other shows were purposively chosen given the high likelihood of the presence of risk behaviors with the intent to maximize statistical power to find TV rating effects, if they existed. The 17 shows (154 hours across 323 episodes) with descriptions of air times, ratings, and episodes are provided in Table 1.


Listing of TV Program Sample

Here is the Pediatrics statement on media:

Media and Children

Media is everywhere. TV, Internet, computer and video games all vie for our children’s attention. Information on this page can help parents understand the impact media has in our children’s lives, while offering tips on managing time spent with various media. The AAP has recommendations for parents and pediatricians.

Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. To help kids make wise media choices, parents should monitor their media diet. Parents can make use of established ratings systems for shows, movies and games to avoid inappropriate content, such as violence, explicit sexual content or glorified tobacco and alcohol use.

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

By limiting screen time and offering educational media and non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children’s media experience. Putting questionable content into context and teaching kids about advertising contributes to their media literacy.

The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

Additional Resources

Here is the press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

TV Ratings on Sex, Violence and Substance Abuse Offer Little Help to Parents


Research shows there is a relationship between young people seeing sexual content on television and the risk of teen pregnancy, seeing violence and teen aggression, and seeing depictions of smoking and drinking and youth substance use, which is why the US Congress asked the entertainment industry to develop a TV Parental Guidelines rating system over 20 years ago. However, a study conducted by researchers at the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth and published in the September 2016 Pediatrics (published online Aug. 22), “Industry Television Ratings for Violence, Sex and Substance Use,” shows these industry ratings were ineffective in warning parents about content that might not be appropriate for children to view. Researchers compared 323 episodes of 17 television shows for sex, violence, smoking and drinking, and found that only sex and gore were demonstrably more prevalent in mature rated shows. All other risk behaviors were pervasive across most rating categories, especially interpersonal violence (occurring in 70 percent of episodes) and alcohol use (in 58 percent of shows), but also smoking (31 percent). Study authors concluded that in this sample of shows, the ratings system did little to help parents discriminate and limit exposure to these behaviors. More research is needed across more television shows to monitor and improve the TV Parental Guidelines.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 66,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit

What Questions Should a Parent Ask a Venue About Content?

Does a particular venue have a ratings system for content?

What is the model for the ratings system? Is it like film ratings or ESRB?

How descriptive is the rating system, does it give examples of the type of language or situation which might be problematic?

Where is the rating for each production listed? Is it in the descriptive brochure? Is this information on the web site? Are box office personnel familiar with the ratings?

If a family has concerns about a particular production, how should concerns be addressed to the venue if the family finds the production does not match the rating description?

Families have different viewpoints about what is appropriate content for their child or children. Some families seek out a variety of experiences for their children while others are more restrained in what they feel is appropriate. All families need to ask questions about content to find what is appropriate for their child and their value system.

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