Skyfall (2)

In theory, the PG-13 rating is supposed to protect younger teens from adult elements like sex or violence. In practice, however, anyone who’s ever seen, say, Skyfall or The Dark Knight knows that these movies can actually get away with quite a lot of brutality.

In fact, a new study indicates these films have only become more and more violent since the PG-13 rating was first introduced in the ’80s — to the extent that PG-13 films actually have more gun violence these days than R-rated movies do. Hit the jump for more findings from the researchers.

The study, which was conducted by Ohio State University and UPenn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, will be published in the December issue of Pediatrics magazine. The researchers analyzed over 900 films which were all among top 30 grossers of each year from 1950 through 2012. They found that the amount of gun violence in movies has more than doubled in frequency during that time.

The increase was even more steep among PG-13 movies. Gun violence in PG-13 films has more than tripled since the rating was first introduced in the mid-’80s, say the researchers. The level of violence in PG-13 films have been roughly on par with those of R-rated movies since 2009, and in 2012 PG-13 movies actually surpassed R-rated films in that regard.

Those conclusions don’t necessarily mean there’s no distinction between hard-R action scenes and PG-13 ones. It doesn’t make a distinction between pro-violence and anti-violence movies, for example, or between acts of aggression and acts of self-defense. But they do indicate that the difference between R-rated titles and ostensibly kid-friendly PG-13 titles aren’t as different as we’d like to believe.

Annenberg’s Dan Romer, one of the co-authors of the study, explained these findings are particularly worrying because of the “weapons effect,” a previously proven psychological phenomenon whereby seeing the depiction of a gun makes people act more violently. “We know that movies teach children how adults behave, and they make gun use appear exciting and attractive,” he said.

Romer said studios were “taking films that have a lot of violence and putting them into the PG-13 category,” and suggested that the MPAA crack down on violence. “We treat sex as R,” Mr. Romer he pointed out. “We should treat extreme gun violence as R.”

But change may not be a simple matter of getting Hollywood to change. Since the study only examines high-grossing films, Romer acknowledged, it says as much about movie audiences as it does about movie makers. “Violence sells,” he said. “We recognize that, and the movie industry realizes it.”

Discuss: Do you think PG-13 movies are too violent?

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