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Measuring the movie gore that youngsters see

By Katherine Vonderhaar

Should a 10-year-old watch Scary Movie's villain pull a young woman out of a car and stab her to death? Or see Mel Gibson's character in Payback undergo a gory interrogation?

Not many people would think so. Yet a recent study led by DMS pediatrics fellow Keilah Worth, Ph.D., shows that millions of preteens and young teens are watching violent movies—despite their R rating. More than 1,000 studies have documented a link between exposure to violent media and aggression in children, but the Dartmouth study was the first one to examine the actual exposure of young adolescents around the country to violent R-rated movies.

Scary: The researchers conducted a national telephone survey of 6,522 children between the ages of 10 and 14 and asked if they'd seen any of 40 R-rated films released from 1998 to 2003. The study's 10 most popular films were each seen by more than 23%of the study participants. Nearly 50% of the youngsters, including 27% of the 10- year-olds, had seen Scary Movie, for example. "It's really disturbing" that children that young are seeing such films, says Worth, since many "10-year-olds just stopped believing in Santa Claus."

Though some may dismiss the comedic violence of Scary Movie as harmlessly funny, pediatrician James Sargent, M.D., begs to differ. "Laughing at violence is a cardinal sign that the adolescent has been desensitized to violence," says Sargent, a senior scientist on the study. "Violence desensitization is how the military prepares soldiers for war. Little kids should not be prepared for war."

Sadistic: In the paper, which was published in the August issue of Pediatrics, several factors—beingmale, an older teen, and nonwhite; performing poorly in school; and having less-educated parents—were associated with higher exposure to violent movies. In addition to comedic violence, four other types of movie violence were identified: horror with gore, sadistic violence, sexualized violence, and extreme interpersonal violence.

The paper, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Legacy Foundation, is one of Sargent's many studies examining the influence of media on adolescent behavior. Now that the researchers have quantified youngsters' exposure to movie violence, they're analyzing the effects of that exposure on behavior. In the meantime, Sargent urges parents to always say no to young adolescents who want to watch R-rated movies.

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