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Study finds that young teens are exposed to too many violent movies

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 12/23/02 • Contact Susan Knapp

James Sargent, Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School

Collaborating researchers from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth College have found that a surprising number of young teenagers are watching extremely violent movies.

Their study, which appears in the December 2002 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health and was supported by the National Cancer Institute, examines the reach of extremely violent movies among a sample of more than 5000 5th-8th graders, who are about 10-14 years old. Students were asked whether they had seen any of 50 randomly selected movies from the top 600 box office draws released from 1988 to 1999. From this sample of 600 movies, the researchers identified the 50 that contained the most violence. These movies, all R-rated and not meant to be seen by children, contained scenes depicting such things as sadistic rape, sodomy, brutal or ritualistic murders and cannibalism. On average, these especially violent movies were seen by 28 percent of the sample.

The authors say their results suggest that better oversight of movie industry marketing practices might be warranted.

"Demand for seeing violent movies among adolescents is spurred by the advertising practices of the movie industry," says James Sargent, the lead author on this paper and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. "Through movies, adolescents are being exposed to brutal and often sexualized violence."

Sargent also suggests that parents need to do a better job of monitoring children's access to movies. "Parents wouldn't think of exposing their children to food with arsenic in it. We need to teach them to think of violent movies in the same way," he says.

The survey revealed that the most popular movies for fifth graders, who are usually about 10 years old, were I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream , with both movies seen by more than 40 percent of those fifth graders surveyed. Both are rated R, indicating that the films are restricted for people under the age of 17.

The movie rating system, in place since 1968, provides parents with information to help determine whether their children should see a movie. The rating system is sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners. According to, "an R may be assigned due to, among other things, a film's use of language, theme, violence, sex or its portrayal of drug use."

Two other R movies, The General's Daughter and Natural Born Killers , were also seen by a surprising number of those surveyed. The General's Daughter , which contained a graphic and violent rape scene, was seen by 27 percent of the sample and by 20 percent of fifth graders. Natural Born Killers , portraying young lovers on a killing spree mixed with sex, was seen by 20 percent of the adolescents overall and by 13 percent of fifth graders.

As videos, DVDs and cable and satellite television become more and more accessible, it's much easier for children to watch R-rated movies. In this study, the researchers surveyed 5,456 students ranging in age from ten to 14 in northern New England. The students were asked if they had seen any of 50 randomly selected movies from a master list of 603 titles released between 1988 and 1999. Each survey contained a variety of R-, PG- and G-rated movies, but the rating was not printed. The researchers used information from three different sources to grade the level of violence in each movie, and they took into account the students' memory reliability and other factors, such as peer pressure.

The research group, which includes experts from Dartmouth's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will continue their adolescent behavior studies with an additional $3.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute. The award will fund research to further clarify the connection between exposure to movies and teenage development and to understand parents' role in restricting this exposure.

- Susan Knapp

Results of this study

Related findings

Sargent is part of a prolific research group at Dartmouth dedicated to understanding adolescent behavior and how it's linked to exposure to movies. They have published numerous studies. In January 2001, this research team reported that actor endorsement of cigarette brands in movies was increasing. In March 2001, the team released findings that adolescents whose favorite movie stars smoke on-screen are more likely to be smokers themselves. In December 2001, they published a paper stating that children are less likely to smoke if their parents disapprove. In another article published in December 2001, the researchers revealed that as adolescents see more smoking in movies, it's more likely to entice them to try smoking. A paper in early 2002 stated that children who are not restricted from watching R-rated movies are three times more likely to smoke or drink alcohol compared to those who are never allowed to watch them.

January 2001 news:
Increasing Actor Endorsement of Cigarette Brands in Films

March 2001 news:
Dartmouth Researchers find that Teens are Influenced by Movie Star Smokers

December 2001 news:
Does Parental Disapproval of Smoking Prevent Adolescents From Becoming Established Smokers?

December 2001 news:
Dartmouth Researchers Link Movies to Teen Smoking

February 2002 news:
Restricting R-Movies to Teens Decreased Smoking, Drinking

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