The 2016 episode of Adam Ruins Everything, “Adam Ruins Hollywood,” makes a bold but accurate claim: “Movie ratings are totally pointless.”
For those unfamiliar with the show, which ran on TruTV until 2020, the title basically gives away the plot—comedian Adam Conover “ruins” things by providing the often-unpleasant and possibly even unwanted context for many accepted facets of our daily lives. The segment on movie ratings points out critical flaws with the process, which is overseen by the Motion Picture Association’s Classification and Rating Administration board. Conover describes the ratings process as “weird and arbitrary,” and offers a couple of particularly powerful examples showing how flawed the system is.
The Dark Knight, a rather violent entry in the Batman franchise, has a PG-13 rating, while the not-at-all violent Shakespeare in Love has an R rating. The latter includes some “sexual situations”; the former, a scene where the Joker murders someone with a pencil. Adam used the example to illustrate a consistent bias in the ratings system—that the ratings board tends to be accepting of high levels of violence but prudish when it comes to sex.
The show points out that the same swear words can result in different ratings. Saying “fuck you” in a movie would net a PG-13 rating while saying “I want to fuck you” would result in an R rating. Conover notes that LGBTQ sex is often deemed more objectionable in ratings than straight sex—if that “I want to fuck you” were spoken to someone of the same sex, it could even result in an NC-17 rating.
The segment includes a pretty damning quote about how ratings are determined. Joan Graves, who the chair of the movie ratings board from 2000–2019, once described the process as, “not science, [but] a matter of perception.” Add in the biases against LGBTQ content and the system’s racist history—the precursor to the modern movie ratings board once deemed depictions of white slavery inappropriate, but Black slavery permissible—and it’s easy to see how something that should ostensibly help parents make informed choices about content kids should or shouldn’t be watching is actually not all that useful.
But outside of ratings, where can parents turn for information to help them understand what might be in movies or other media their kids are consuming? We asked Kristen Harrison, a professor and media psychologist at the University of Michigan, who studies mass media effects on children and adolescents, for some guidance.
Understand the impact on your particular child
There are two key things that parents should understand: More than their age, what material kids can handle in a movie varies based on their personality and maturity level. In addition, early exposure to sex and violence can have an impact on them, so this stuff is definitely worth thinking about.
“When kids are exposed to violent media, sexual media, they do tend to behave in ways that are consistent with that exposure,” Harrison says. “Kids who are exposed to a lot of violence are likely to be a little more aggressive. Kids exposed to sexual media may use sexual language a little more frequently, or it might stoke their curiosity about sexuality. But the qualifying point here is that not all kids respond the same way.”
One way that movie and other rating systems are problematic is when they include a general, blanket statement about what ages that content is appropriate for. Not only are some children of the same age more likely to be scared or upset by violent content than others—but saying something is only appropriate for kids 17 and older can automatically make it appealing to kids younger than 17.
“[Ratings] can backfire because when kids see them, it can make content more attractive to younger kids who want to feel grown up by watching something that’s for older kids,” she says.
Harrison recommends parents seek out content-based ratings. Common Sense Media has a great database of thorough content-based reviews of different media that parents can use as a resource.
“Let’s say a movie is listed as having adult themes or being violent; that parent can decide, based on what their children are sensitive to, which kids might be okay with that content and which probably won’t be,” Harrison says.
What the MPA ratings don’t cover
Sharing your favorite entertainment with your kids should be done with an understanding that revisiting past content through modern eyes can reveal stereotypical portrayals of race, gender, and sexuality that aren’t covered by that PG rating. As those themes are encountered, they should be talked about with kids and explained. But they are often beyond the scope of what tools like movie or content ratings provide.
My dad and I were super different people. He was a proud blue collar shop rat, and I was a bookish nerd. (He was kind and loving, even if we didn’t speak the same language.) When I was a kid, we bonded by watching pro wrestling. He absolutely loved it, and I—like many kids—found the over-the-top personalities in wrestling wildly entertaining.
He died a year before my son was born. As my son has gotten older, one of the ways I have tried to introduce him to his grandpa is through wrestling. There’s a problem though: The WWE, the biggest wrestling company in the world, has a ridiculously problematic history with racism, homophobia, the regressive way the company has portrayed women, and how it treats its own labor. Instead of assuming that material would go over his head, we’ve been engaging with it as it has arisen in the old wrestling shows we’re watching, opening the door for some good and productive conversations.
“There is research showing that media content that is stereotypical or presents groups in stereotyped ways is related to more stereotyped views of those groups after exposure,” Harrison says. “So parents should be mindful of that. I think what they can do is talk to their kids about how stereotypes can show up in media.”
There are obviously overt examples of racist or sexist content in older media that is usually easy to see it for what it is, but such content is far from exclusively a thing of the past. Harrison points out that the process of storytelling itself still leads to reliance on such tropes. It is simply easier to rely on cultural or gender stereotypes in fixed amounts of time than it is to build characters or plots with genuine human complexity, and many shows, movies, and other media still rely on them, even if they are deployed more subtle than in the past.
“Creators have to get a story across in a visual way,” Harrison says. “So violence, for example, is a really visually potent and easy-to-understand way to demonstrate conflict. But there’s a lot of conflict that happens in real life that isn’t violent, right? But media have to get that across. If there’s a conflict between two people it will often resort to kind of vivid demonstrations of conflict.”
It’s the same with other stereotypes, she notes: “If [a film] wants to present that a character is gay, for example, they might actually still rely on visual stereotypes and sight gags to convey that they’re gay.”
When those situations are encountered, Harrison recommends simply reminding kids that stereotypes are not a reflection of reality and that all people are different and have different motivations and traits.
You can’t personally screen everything
Parents want to protect their kids, so it is natural to want to know what they’re watching at all times, especially when they’re young. But it’s also impossible to prescreen everything they see. Virtually all kids have some level of access to devices, potentially even at times when parents aren’t aware they’re using them. Content is everywhere.
“It’s really hard to monitor content today,” Harrison says. “I don’t think parents should feel bad if they are not watching over their children’s shoulders 24 hours a day, because they just can’t. And at some point, as their kids are moving into adolescence, for example, it’s developmentally inappropriate to be watched by your parents to that extent anyway.”
It is important to make sure that kids aren’t having inappropriate conversations or being groomed by predators while consuming media content, but it is also important as they grow to help them start developing their own relationships and interests, and practice making their own choices. Parents can provide structure and guidance around content without having to police what is being watched constantly.
For younger kids, there are also apps and tools like Securly that allow parents to see a history or digest of content kids are viewing and track other behaviors to ensure they’re being responsible in what they consume or how they interact online.
Simply introducing different healthy activities can also be a way to provide balance in their lives and avoid over-consumption of problematic or too-mature movies or shows.
“I think parents need to stop thinking about looking over their shoulders to see everything that they’re looking at or listening to, and think of it more in terms of media are part of child development,” Harrison says. “One way parents can handle this onslaught of media is to just try to introduce more general activities into their kids’ lives. So, if it means going out with your kids for a walk, or making a meal together, don’t look at it in terms of trying to reduce their exposure, but instead trying to replace their exposure with things kids need for development. Give them a break from media time, and that will [naturally] reduce their exposure to problematic content.”