Media Ratings: Music and Movies

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Companies that produce media in the form of movies, music, television, and video games all rate their content using standardized rating systems in an effort to alert parents and other caregivers to the type of material contained within each instance of media, and/or the minimum suggested age a child should be before consuming the media. In the next section of this document we review the major rating systems so as to orient parents and caregivers to their appropriate use.

Music Ratings


The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) labels music albums and some digital/online music downloads that they consider to contain sexually explicit or violent references in lyrics, foul language, or drug or alcohol abuse references. Individual record companies collaborate with the recording artist to determine if this label is appropriate for a given music release. This "Parental Advisory Explicit Content" label is most often a sticker placed on the outside plastic wrapping of a CD or on the Web page from which it may be downloaded. Many retailers will restrict youth younger than 18 years from buying products marked with the "Parental Advisory" label. Other retailers simply decline to carry any products so marked. In response, many recording companies and recording artists create alternative "clean" versions of their music with edited lyrics that eliminate the questionable material and allow the recordings to be widely sold. In such cases, there may be two or more versions of any given album, including a "clean" version and a "dirty" one. Parents need to be aware which version of a song or album their children are purchasing.

Parents should consider that even when lyrics have been edited, smarter kids will still understand the underlying theme or suggestive content of songs. Purchase of the "clean" (e.g., self-censored) version of a song may also serve to whet a youth's appetite for obtaining the "dirty" version. Thus, a purchase of the cleaned up version of a song may not ultimately be as protective of children's developing minds as is intended.

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Movie Ratings

The Motion Picture Association of America has developed a movie ratings system that categorizes movies with labels G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 indicating a given movie's appropriateness for consumption by children. Movie producers and distributors fund a Rating Committee to vote on ratings for all movies. The movie ratings system has been around for many years and has undergone revision. Some history of the movie rating system is provided in this Wikipedia article.

G-rated movies are appropriate for "General Audiences.", meaning that all age groups should be fine to watch the movie without concern. G-rated movies should not offend parents of young children; do not contain any strong language, sex, nudity, or drug use; and contain little if any violence.

The PG rating is provided when "Parental Guidance" is suggested. Parents may want to review PG-rated movies before showing them to young children. There may be some profanity, brief nudity, or violence. There are no sex scenes or drug use scenes in a PG movie, however.

The PG-13 rating suggests that the movie contains scenes that are not appropriate for youth under 13 years old, although parents who feel otherwise are free to take their children to see the movie. These films may have one sexually-derived swear word, but it can only be used as an expletive and not in the context of a sexual act. Furthermore, there may be more than brief nudity, but it cannot be in a sexual scene. Any drug use in a film requires at least a PG-13 rating. As well, there may be violence in the film, but it cannot be considered "extreme or persistent."

The next level of rating is "R" for "restricted" movies. R-rated movies require that youth under the age of 17 not be allowed to watch the movie unless accompanied by a supervising parent or adult guardian. However, it's up to the movie theater and or movie store to enforce this ban. These films contain persistent violence, sexually-based nudity, consistent strong language, drug use depictions, and other "adult" themes. It's generally not appropriate for younger children to attend these films.

The most restrictive rating for a movie is NC-17. No youth will be admitted to these movies or allowed to purchase or to rent them. The board feels these movies are meant only for adults because of drug use, graphic violence, graphic sexual situations, and other "aberrational behavior." NC-17 replaced the earlier "X" rating in 1985. While movie ratings can serve generally to guide parents' decisions about which movies are appropriate for their children, parents need to be aware that when it comes to movie ratings, one size does not fit all. Some younger children may become disturbed by the content of G or PG rated movies despite the fact that ratings suggest that they would be appropriate for younger children. Likewise, some younger children may not be disturbed by sexual or violent content in more restricted movies. Some youth may not be emotionally or cognitively mature enough for the content or situations depicted in a particular movie while others will be. Parents should consider the needs of their individual children when deciding what movies are appropriate to show them.

Many set-top-boxes provided by cable or satellite companies feature the ability to set up parental controls so as to require a password to be provided before adult-rated content may be viewed or recorded (if the box is also a DVR). Parents can use these parental controls to have better control over what movies youth can easily view. Consult your cable or satellite provider's website for instructions on setting up parental controls. General information about setting up cable box parental controls is available at

Because children may gain direct access to movies through illegal Internet downloads and non-traditional sources, parents cannot rely on commercial guardians to enforce movie ratings. Instead, they must monitor their children's movie consumption directly by paying attention to what their children are actually watching and asking questions about where movies may have come from.

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