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"R" is for Risky Youth Behavior, Sargent Movie Study Reports

March 12, 2010
Lebanon, NH

Dr. Sargent

James Sargent, MD

Dr. Gerrard

Meg Gerrard, PhD

After surveying more than 6,000 American youths several times over two years, James D. Sargent, MD, and four fellow researchers are reporting a tendency among children who regularly watch R-rated movies to take risks ranging from alcohol abuse to violence.

The findings, from Sargent's continuing research into the influences of mass media on young consumers, appear in the March 2010 issue of Prevention Science, a journal of the Society for Prevention Research.

"The message to parents is clear: Take the movie ratings literally," says Sargent, who is Co-Director of the Cancer Control Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, and a Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS). "Children under 17 should not be permitted to see R-rated movies."

With support from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Sargent collaborated with Meg Gerrard, PhD, a Professor of Psychiatry at DMS and Sargent's Co-Director; former DMS postdoctoral fellow Keilah A. Worth, PhD; Frederick X. Gibbons, a Research Professor in Dartmouth College's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences; and lead author Mike Stoolmiller, PhD, a Research Associate at the University of Oregon's College of Education. The team surveyed 6,255 children every eight months between 2003 and 2005.

"The study found that watching R-rated movies affected the level of sensation seeking among adolescents," says Sargent. "It showed that R-rated movies not only contain scenes of alcohol use that prompt adolescents to drink, they also jack up the sensation-seeking tendency, which makes adolescents more prone to engage in all sorts of risky behaviors."

The researchers worry particularly about the effects of viewing cinematic misbehavior on youths who previously did not show signs of sensation seeking.

"High-sensation seekers are already at high risk for use of alcohol, and watching a lot of R-rated movies raises their risk only a little," Sargent says. "For low-sensation seekers, R-rated movies make a big difference. In fact, exposure to R-rated movies can make a low-sensation seeking adolescent drink like a high-sensation seeking adolescent."

In a paper that the journal Pediatrics published in 2008, Sargent and Worth focused particularly on the effects of screen violence on the behavior of the children. Out of 532 movies, they looked at exposure to 40 of the most violent and found what Worth - now an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh - described as "a disturbingly high rate of exposure among 10- to 14-year-olds nationwide."

The researchers surveyed the youths by phone, after obtaining consent from their parents. To protect confidentiality, the children answered sensitive questions by pressing numbers on the telephone, rather than speaking aloud. The study sample mirrored the U.S. adolescent population with respect to age, sex, household income, and census region, with a slightly higher percentage of Hispanics and a slightly lower percentage of African-Americans than of adolescents nationwide.

The survey asked the children how they identified with such statements as "I like to do scary things, I like to do dangerous things, I often think there is nothing to do, and I like to listen to loud music." They also answered questions about whether they had ever tried alcohol without their parents knowing.

The survey measured the viewing of R-rated movies by asking respondents whether they had watched a random selection of movie titles from box-office hits during 2003 that had grossed at least $15 million. The movie titles included movies that had G (general audience), PG (parental guidance) and R (restricted) ratings.

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