Gun Violence in Entertainment Media: How on the Screen Translates off the Screen

By Esme Laster

After 27 students and teachers were gunned down at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, CT in 2012, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America pledged to curb violence in society. “Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal,” Christopher Dodd said.

Since Dodd spoke 7 years ago, there have been 2,173 mass shootings throughout the U.S. and a growing population of disheartened citizens have become wary of the entertainment industry as gun violence’s greatest perpetuator. Researchers, parents and even politicians blamed the MPAA for misleading America’s youth on the dangers of gun violence. 

The MPAA, the self proclaimed “voice of the film and television industry,” devises a national rating system for film and television designed to protect children.

The Parents Television Council (PTC) recently asked the government to reevaluate the rating system of all entertainment media, claiming the TV content rating system can be “outright deceptive.” The Federal Communications Commission asked a TV monitoring board to consider the accuracy of television’s content rating system.  

Researchers also complain about the entertainment industry’s flawed rating system. “Showing all the violence in a sanitized form displays the behavior in a way that makes it seem less harmful,” says Daniel Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Romer is especially concerned about how PG-13 content is rated. Take PG-13 rated movies “Skyfall” (2012), or “Jack Reacher” (2012). In both of these blockbuster films, guns harm characters, yet, the blood and gore that would typically follow a gunshot is conspicuously concealed from viewers’ eyes. This sanitized footage “is making the use of violence seem justified,” Romer concluded in a 2018 study. 

Distorted violence can severely harm children, says Brad Bushman a communication professor at Ohio State University. In his 2019 study of 220 children aged 8-12, Bushman found that the children who played violent video games were more likely to touch and hold longer a real handgun as opposed to children who played non-violent video games. 

This misguided portrayal of gun violence can be especially harmful when targeted to a specific demographic. In 1999, the Federal Trade Commission’s review of the entertainment industry found that 80% of its 44 violent movies surveyed were targeted to children under 17. The report also uncovered that 70% of the 118 video games reviewed were targeted primarily to males aged 12-17. 

Recently, Romer and Bushman’s groundbreaking social psychological findings were brought to the national stage. Featured in the FCC’s 2019 report on the TV ratings system, the Romer and Bushman’s work called for a radical restructuring of how entertainment media is marketed to the youth. 

Now, Romer and Bushman want America to adopt the Netherland’s content rating system. Called Kijkwijzer, the system consolidates TV, movies, and videogames and assigns specific ages to various content. It also uses symbols to indicate what makes the content inappropriate for certain ages. Content would also be delegated by child development experts rather than corporate executives under Kijkwijzer.

Regulating content as strictly as Kijkwijzer entails could encroach upon the constitution. The first amendment protects citizens’ right to freedom of speech or expression and entertainment can be interpreted as a form of expression. So the government can only do so much to regulate it. The Supreme Court struck down a California law in 2011 that required violent or sexually explicit video game content to be labeled “18.” Video games were held as a “means of expression” by the court.