Monday, 10 November 2014

The cause of ratings creep: desensitisation

The November issue of Pediatrics magazine includes the findings of some very interesting new research which suggests that viewers may be partly responsible for ‘ratings creep’ which has seen younger children exposed to increasing levels of on screen sex and violence.

The study found that parents become desensitised over time when viewing material featuring ‘adult’ content; viewers watching a series of bloodthirsty or erotic scenes were less able to gauge their suitability for children as time went by.

Researchers showed a series of clips with similar levels of sex and violence to parents of children aged six to 18 and asked them to give each selection an age rating. The study found that viewers of the first scene felt an appropriate age would be, on average, 16.9 for violent content and 17.2 for sexualised content. But by the time they had watched the sixth scene, respondents’ perception of the appropriate age had dropped to 13.9 for violent content and 14 for sexualised content.

The authors of the study also suggest that the desensitisation phenomenon could affect other frequent film viewers, such as those who decide the age appropriate level of films.  This would help explain the long-term “ratings creep” phenomenon which has seen censors on both sides of the Atlantic relax ratings.  Indeed an American study conducted last year found that films rated PG-13 now contain more gun violence than those rated R (not suitable for under 17s) and that gun violence in PG-13 films has tripled since 1985.

The phenomenon was illustrated in the UK this week:

Appearing before a meeting of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, outgoing Ofcom Chairman, Ed Richards, told MPs that Ofcom have found only 35% of viewers think there is too much violence on TV, down from 55% in 2008, while 26% believe there is too much sex.  Just 35% think there is too much swearing; down from 53% six years ago.

“There has been a big change in this over the years,” said Mr Richards.  “People are more tolerant of a degree of violence than they were. They are much more tolerant of certain forms of swearing than they were.”

This is a perfect illustration of what happens after decades of constant exposure to questionable content; we become desensitised and the boundaries of what is considered acceptable are constantly pushed back.  What the long-term consequences of this desensitisation might be for the next generation remain unknown.

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