''The Bourne Identity,'' an action spy thriller based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling novel, is a box-office hit. It's got martial arts-style fights, violent combat with esoteric weapons, and chase scenes that excite lovers of the action-movie genre. To them it's great entertainment. OK. But ''The Bourne Identity'' is not a movie for children.
So why is this movie rated PG-13 (''some material may be inappropriate for children under 13'')? Because the film ratings board is made up of people who are handpicked by the movie industry and work for it. The ratings are given according to criteria that have never been made available to the public, and because the industry wants the lowest ratings possible in order to maximize profits. Decisions about who buys those tickets at the box office and whether or not a movie is good for them to see will always be in conflict with the bottom line.
In the last few years, we have seen a ratings slippage. Movies once rated PG-13 are now PG, and movies once rated R are now PG-13. Both the quantity and the intensity of violence in films rated OK for kids to see have increased. In the PG-13 movie ''The Mummy,'' for example, eyes and tongues are ripped out, arms are chopped off, and people are shot to death and burned alive. In ''Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones,'' rated PG (''some material may not be suitable for young children''), a father is decapitated, and his boy finds the severed head in a helmet. And this isn't the half of it.
In September 2000, the Federal Trade Commission published a landmark report showing how the movie industry has routinely marketed violent entertainment to children under the ages considered appropriate by the industry's own rating system. The report described a host of unethical marketing practices used by the industry to draw children into violent entertainment. One common way is to market violent toys linked to movies rated PG-13 or R to children as young as 4. This was done with ''Godzilla,'' ''Tomb Raider,'' ''Starship Troopers,'' ''Small Soldiers,'' and ''Spider-Man,'' to name just a few.
Often, toys linked to these movies are also linked to other media such as television shows and video games. These toys and their merchandising campaigns draw children into a culture of violence from a young age and help lay the foundation for violent behavior in later life.
Two years ago, six major medical groups – including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association got together and issued a statement on the effects of entertainment violence on children. After reviewing hundreds of studies, they found an overwhelming causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.
They also found that children who watch a lot of media violence can become desensitized to violence in real life. This makes sense. Children are more affected by the violent acts they see on the screen and less able to understand them in a context of character, motive, and plot than adults are. Because of this, children are especially vulnerable to the desensitizing effects of violence in entertainment. We have seen many worrisome examples in recent years of young people who can shoot classmates or inflict pain on others without any apparent feelings for them.
A Gallup poll revealed that 86 percent of Americans think the amount of violence children see in movies is a serious problem. Six in ten adults say that the information provided by the Hollywood ratings system is inadequate for making judgments about appropriate entertainment for kids. A better system of rating movies is needed, as are controls on the unethical marketing practices identified in the FTC report.
Those of us who push for these changes are warned of the danger in limiting freedom of expression. But when seven major media conglomerates own most of the media we consume, exercise almost unlimited control over most of the images to which we are exposed, and are free to market their wares to children without concern for what is best for them, do we want to stand by and claim that it is their First Amendment right to do so? What about the rights of parents and children to live without the pervasive presence of violent media images in their everyday lives?
Children are vulnerable. They do need protection. It is not good for them to be exposed to images that make hurting other people look like fun, that encourage them to play with violent toys designed to reenact violence they've seen on the screen. We need to take steps to create a better and healthier entertainment climate for children. A reasonable start would be to restrict the marketing to children of toys and products linked to movies rated for older age groups and to create an independent film ratings board, one that operates outside of industry control. When you think about what the stakes are and what we already know about how violent entertainment affects children, these seem like small, long-overdue baby steps.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.