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I can't remember for sure what my first R-rated movie was. If my fuzzy middle-aged mental hard drive (which could use a serious defrag) serves me, I think it was either Flashdance or Purple Rain when I was about 14 years old. I have clearer memories, actually, of what my best friend and I had to do to rent such films. Specifically, my R-rated experiences depended upon a bit of luck, an older, ethically lax friend who punched the clock at our small-town video store … and my parents going to bed early.

Both films have content concerns that are way out of bounds for a young teen (and most other folks, too, for that matter). But at the time, if you had asked me if I thought the films impacted me in a negative way, I'm sure I would have said something like, "It's just a stupid movie! It doesn't really matter. It's no big deal." My conscience knew better, though, and I still recall the illicit rush of watching something we knew we weren't supposed to be setting eyes on.

These days, kids watching R-rated films isn't as taboo as it was in the mid-'80s. Technology has made getting R-rated material—or any kind of material, for that matter—orders of magnitude easier than it was for my friend Joe and me. That said, I think today's teens would respond exactly as I would have if you ask them whether R-rated content influences them. "No big deal," most would say. "I watch this stuff all the time. It's not hurting anyone."

But I was wrong. And they're wrong, too. Increasingly, researchers are solidifying the link between what teens see in R-rated films and what choices they make in real life.

Little Eyes R Watching
In her 2010 commonsensemedia.com article "Sneaking Into R-Rated Movies (Without Leaving Home)," writer and mother Liz Perle wrote, "I clearly recall telling my then 13-year-old son that the movie Superbad was a total non-starter for him. Full of underage drinking, I didn't want him to think getting plastered was hilarious. So he didn't go sneak into the theater with his friends. But a week later, he was quoting movie dialogue. He didn't need to see the movie. He simply went online and watched the trailers. Then he went on to YouTube for more. Finally, he illegally downloaded a pirated user-posted copy by using an open source file-sharing application called BitTorrent. A total wipeout. Not only had he seen the movie, but he'd also broken the law."

Most young teens and tweens are watching R-rated films by buying DVDs at Walmart with their allowance, casually snagging tickets at the theater, streaming them on Hulu or simply watching on TV. In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission released a report showing that about 40% of 13- to 16-year-olds were able to purchase theater tickets for R-rated movies. Nearly 80% successfully purchased DVDs of similar films. No sneaking around necessary. A 2007 article published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine reported that more than 75% of all U.S. children between the ages of 10 and 14 watched R-rated movies at home with no parental supervision.

In 2003, Dartmouth Medical School researchers surveyed 6,522 children, asking whether they had seen 40 recent films rated R for graphic violence, including Blade, Training Day, Hollow Man and Bride of Chucky. It turns out Scary Movie was the film 10- to 14-year-olds were most likely to have seen, with 48% having watched it. Boys, minorities, those from lower-income families and those with lower academic performance were more likely to have seen the ultraviolent fare. Perhaps most significantly, about one in three reported that their parents let them watch R-rated movies. But even among those whose parents prohibited them, nearly a quarter had seen at least one of the movies on the list.

R You Seeing Smoke?
Permissive parents might have a different perspective if they understood how imagery in R-rated films influences teens' choices. One area that's been subject to repeated scholarly inquiry has been the correlation between teens witnessing smoking in R-rated films and how those images influence whether or not they imitate that behavior themselves.

Research published in a 2007 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that white U.S. teenagers who frequently watched R-rated movies were a whopping seven times more likely to start smoking than peers with less exposure to such films. Even allowing for other influences—such as friends who smoked, poor performance in school and lack of parental guidance—young whites viewing more R-rated fare were still three times more likely to begin smoking. (Researchers also found a link between unsupervised television consumption and picking up the habit.)

Backing up that data are two more recent studies. In 2009, research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reinforced the notion that children who watch R-rated films are more likely to smoke than those who don't. "Parents need to be mindful about the movies their children watch for a variety of reasons," said co-author Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "This study points out one more reason for not allowing children to watch movies that are not appropriate for their age."

Rebecca de Leeuw, a doctoral student at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, echoed those statements when talking about the results of her research, published in the January 2011 issue of Pediatrics. De Leeuw once again found that teens who watch R-rated movies are more likely to begin smoking than those who don't, estimating that completely restricting R-rated movie viewing among 10- to 14-year-olds could cut their risk of smoking two- to threefold. "When watching popular movies, youth are exposed to many risk behaviors, including smoking, which is rarely displayed with negative health consequences and most often portrayed in a positive manner or glamorized to some extent," she said.

Fans R Drinking, Too
Smoking isn't the only subject academics have analyzed. Dartmouth Medical School researchers investigated the relationship between R-rated viewing habits and alcohol. They found that almost 25% of children whose parents let them watch R-rated movies "all the time" had tried an alcoholic drink without their parents' knowledge. In contrast, just 3% of kids who were "never allowed" to watch R-rated movies had tried drinking. (According to the study, alcohol consumption is portrayed in about 90% of R-rated movies.)

Dartmouth pediatrician and professor James Sargent, who co-authored the study that was published in the March 2010 issue of Prevention Science, commented on those findings: "The research to date suggests that keeping kids from R-rated movies can help keep them from drinking, smoking and doing a lot of other things that parents don't want them to do."

Then he added, "The message to parents is clear. Take the movie ratings literally. Under 17 should not be permitted to see R-rated movies."

The strong correlations don't end there. And neither does common sense. But this article must. So with such a wealth of research backing up Sargent's statement, there's more than enough evidence to say, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Whether it's cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, violence or sex, R-rated movies do influence teens. And it matters not a whit what I might have thought when I was 14.

Published January 2012




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