The small mish-mash of letters and numbers at the beginning of TV shows have been a presence on American TV screens since the internet was in its infancy and “streaming” was still just an adjective.
But 20 years since TV content ratings were introduced, there are many question about how useful they are — and whether or not they should even exist.
“If you had to design the worst possible ratings system, it would be what we have here in America,” Ohio State University communication professor Brad Bushman said. “They’re a mess.”
A new study released this month from Dartmouth University’s C. Everett Koop Institute analyzed more than 300 episodes of 17 different TV shows testing for consistency and accuracy based on definitions laid out by the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board.
What they found surprised study author and clinical child psychologist Joy Gabrielli: The ratings, researchers found, are extremely inaccurate.
“We were not able to find consistent differences between the ratings. So for example, we found similar rates of violence between shows rated TV-Y7 (for ages 7 and older) with TV-MA (for mature audiences only),” Gabrielli said. “That’s really concerning.”
Gabrielli and her colleagues found that while the ratings seemed to accurately identify shows that depicted gore and explicit sex, they did little to notify parents of other problems like non-gory violence and substance use.
“Risk behaviors were pervasive across most rating categories, especially interpersonal violence (occurring in 70 percent of episodes) and alcohol use (in 58 percent of shows), but also smoking (31 percent),” the study summary from the American Association of Pediatrics read.
Gabrielli pointed out that TV isn't the only place kids see inappropriate content — ratings systems are also in place for movies and videogames— but TV is still the king of kids' screen time.
"It's a problem because kids 8-18 consume about 7 hours a day of media and the majority of that is still TV content," Gabrielli said. "If parents are using these ratings as a metric for rules in their house, they need to pay attention."
The findings are especially troubling given the decades of research that has found that overexposure to some kinds of content — specifically tobacco and alcohol use, as well as sexual and violent content — can desensitize children to such behaviors, making them seem normal and acceptable.
“We’re visually stimulated beings and have been since the beginning of time,” said Tim Winter, president of television decency advocate group the Parents Television Council. “To say what we see in the media has no impact on us defies logic, it defies science and it defies the economic reality of why the advertisement and entertainment industry has so many zeros to the left of the decimal point.”
Founded in 1995, the Parents Television Council is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group founded by conservative Catholic political activist and media executive L. Brent Bozell III. Winter says its mission is to shield children from possible harm from the broadcasting of sex, violence and profanity in entertainment.
The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board declined to comment for this article aside from a prepared statement in which it said its ratings continue to be a “valuable resource” to parents and cited a 2016 survey which found that 77 percent of respondents used the system and nearly four out of five parents viewed the system “favorably.”
For concerned parents and interest groups, that response simply isn’t good enough. Winter says the Dartmouth study is just more evidence that drastic ratings reform is needed.
“The questions is, do we have the resolve to look at what the best practices are across the world and compare them to our own?” Winter said. “We need to ask ourselves, if there’s even a doubt of harm to our children, why would we allow this to continue?”
Bushman and Winter have a long list of issues with the current U.S. ratings system, but they mostly boil down to two main problems: That the ratings aren’t easy to understand at a glance and that they’re assigned and maintained by the television industry, much like the MPAA is in charge of movie ratings.
“The people who create these ratings answer to same CEO as the person who produced the content. That’s the proverbial fox watching the henhouse,” Winter said. “Unless and until more parental and scientific voices can participate in the oversight of the system, it’s useless.”
So if the U.S. were to change its TV ratings system, what would reform look like?
Bushman thinks it might look more like Kijkwijzer, the ratings system the Netherlands implemented in 2001.
“The purpose with Kijkwijzer is two-fold: To inform parents and protect children but in the U.S. they don’t seem to care about either of those things,” Bushman said. “If they did, they’d make the ratings more clear.”
Kijkwijzer, which loosely translates to “Watch Wiser,” contrasts with the U.S. ratings system in almost every way. Where the U.S. system is anonymous and overseen within the industry, the Dutch system was created in collaboration between the Dutch government, the entertainment industry and leading child development experts, like University of Amsterdam professor of media, youth and society Patti Valkenburg.
In 2001, Valkenburg and three other child developmental scientists at the University of Amsterdam conducted a survey of Dutch parents to best address their concerns about entertainment.
“The survey showed that the majority of parents would like to use a content-based rating system. But also a considerable percentage of parents wanted an age-based rating system,” Valkenburg said. “So we developed a rating system that provided both.”
The Kijkwijzer system employs a total of 11 ratings categories that can be mixed and matched as needed, and while that may sound convoluted, it’s easy to understand. Numbers indicate a maximum age recommended for the program, while symbols are assigned according to content — for example, a fist indicates violent content.
Valkenburg says scientists married parental concerns with what they knew from developmental research could impact kids the most to create the final ratings.
“We know, for example, that young children have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, and so they can easily get frightened by fantasy content,” Valkenburg said.
That means the ratings also cover things the U.S. system doesn’t address, like discrimination and hate speech, drug use and fear.
“Parents were most concerned about fear-inducing content. Discrimination and gross language were also important concerns,” Valkenburg said. “That is why the combination of a content and age-based system is better than an age-based only system. The combination allows parents to choose for themselves which content they deem suitable for their kids.”
As great as the Dutch system sounds, surely the sheer volume of media available today across various platforms would be no match for any ratings system.
Kijkwijzer is implemented across virtually all entertainment platforms, from movies and TV to video games. Even Netflix adheres to Kijkwijzer since it expanded its services to the Netherlands in 2015, while here at home, experts like Gabrielli worry over the limits of the U.S. system.
“This is our biggest concern,” Gabrielli said. “Our system is designed to be used mostly with V-chip technology, and you can’t use that across every form of media that kids use.”
Valkenburg admitted, however, that it’s harder to determine if the ratings actually work, something Kijkwijzer is always working to address with continuous research to ensure consistency and accuracy. A committee of scientists meets twice a month, she said, to discuss developments in entertainment, new trends and future changes to the system. Yet Valkenburg says ratings aren’t enough to protect kids from content that can interfere with their development.
“It’s not perfect and it’s taken us years to optimize the system,” Valkenburg said. “But ratings are only a modest means to help parents decide which content is possibly harmful for their children.”
‘No magic bullet’
While there’s no indication the U.S. ratings system will be revised anytime soon, some groups, like review website Common Sense Media, are already working to better inform parents about their kids’ entertainment options.
Common Sense Media’s executive editor of reviews and ratings Betsy Bozdech said Common Sense was partially founded on the idea that parents need more than current ratings provide.
“There’s a lot of room for error as it is now,” Bozdech said. “The ratings are just a quick little symbol without a lot of context. We offer several hundred words in each review as well as an age rating and a grid breaking down all kinds of content.”
Bozdech said that like Kijkwijzer, Common Sense’s granular approach to ratings helps parents make better decisions as well as offering parents and users a chance to make their own ratings and offer feedback — something Winter says would be an ideal upgrade to the current system.
“There’s no way to challenge a rating. The industry doesn’t want to have a dialogue about its ratings,” Winter said. “It should be a system that ultimately is accountable to those it’s intended to serve: Parents.”
Yet Bozdech said ratings can only go so far to protect kids without thorough parents to enforce them. That’s why experts with the American Association of Pediatrics recommend co-viewing and previewing with children to mitigate any potential impacts on a child’s development.
“Everybody wants the magic bullet without doing their homework, but there is no such thing,” Bozdech said. “Ratings are a first pass, but nothing can replace you as a parent looking into what your kids are consuming and making sure you’re OK with it.”
“Parents can stimulate the positive effects of media on children and counteract negative ones,” Valkenburg said. “A rating system can help parents with their decisions, but parents remain the first responsible of their child’s healthy media diets.”
Winter recognizes the importance of parental involvement in a child’s media habits, but he maintains that the industry should also be accountable for creating a safer media environment.
“Every corner of our country has laws that regulate certain risk behaviors, whether it’s buying tobacco or buying a handgun,” Winter said. “It’s a fine balance that requires not just able parents. It goes back to the old adage: It takes a village.”