Q: I let my 13-year-old watch the movie “Once”. It’s rated R for language, but otherwise it is a sweet movie. The movie uses swears like one would use “darn-it,” not in a degrading way. My child loves music and understands that swearing is not appropriate. The movie did show a small amount of adult smoking and drinking but did not irresponsibly display teens smoking, drinking, or engaging in risky sexual behavior like so many PG-13 movies I've seen. So, I’m confused about the ratings. Has there ever been a study that shows that swear words in movies are damaging to child health? Does the MPAA consider child health when they rate movies?
-Reviewing the Ratings in Glencoe, IL

A: Dear Reviewing the Ratings,

The MPAA ratings are designed to give the best estimate of what the “average” parent would allow their children to be exposed to.  The ratings board is made up of a group of parents who have children between the ages of 5 and 15.  They watch the films, discuss them, and then consider language, violence, nudity, sex, drug use, and other content to decide on the rating.  The ratings board does not use health outcomes as criteria, and it does not have raters who are qualified to assess those issues. 

There are certain rules about the kind of content that can and can not be shown in a film of a particular rating.  For example, if the movie contains a single “sexually-derived expletive”, it must be rated at least PG-13, but if that word is used more than once, the rating will be at least R.  So it is easy to see how a movie like “Once”, that you found acceptable on many levels, may have been given an R rating.  

In terms of research related to swear words, one recent study analyzed how often profanity was used in teen movies between 1986 and 2006.  They found that in these movies, teens used more profanity than adults did, and male characters used more profanity than female characters did.  They also found that over the 3 decades, the amount of profanity actually decreased.  Another study found that ratings have become less and less strict over time, meaning that content that was given an R rating in 1996 was more likely to be given a PG-13 just 7 years later. However, do not know of any health research that indicates that learning swear words or other socially unacceptable language has any health outcomes at all, positive or negative. 

I would recommend that you continue approaching the question of which movies are appropriate for your child in the way that it sounds like you already are.  Instead of relying solely on the MPAA ratings, you should do some "homework" first and consider how they will affect your own child.  It’s great if you can watch the movie yourself before your child sees it, but since that's not always possible, check out these resources:

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

8 Responses to “How do swear words factor in to a movie’s MPAA rating?”

  1. Plez paniagua

    More and more movies are using G D at least once in any given movie. In my view there’s no reason for this whatsoever. Frustration, anger etc. Can be expressed in so many different ways without the use of such profanity in a movie, or real life. I’m a Christian and end up throwing a lot of otherwise pretty good movies in the trash. Just my view, thank you.

    • JW

      I agree whole-heartedly. There is no reason for it but it seems EVERY MOVIE PG13 and higher has at least one token GD in it. I have not seen the end of many movies and have not bought many because of this. Fould language is a choice to listen to or not but the Lords name in vain, ergo…GD is a SIN, it is a Commandment!
      I think we know how is in chrage of the Media…

  2. Ronald Jordan

    I, too, am a Christian and I am totally discussed with the movie industry and it’s use of using God’s name in vain! As a result, I end up trashing all such otherwise good movies or sending them back to Netflix as a unhappy consumer. I will tolerate bad language so long that it doesn’t use the name of God in vain. Amen!

  3. Donald R Barber

    The commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain has NOTHING to do with “profanity”. It is about swearing false oaths.

    The Lord’s name is not “God” by the way. That is simply an honorific that convention has transformed into a name in the common imagination.

    Therefore your dislike of that particular term stems from false piety, mistaking bourgeois sqeamishness for religious devotion.

  4. chris

    More troubling than naughty words, Hollywood movies are a commercial product. Studio execs live in fear of losing their jobs, and producers in fear of losing their investors’ money (millions and millions). They are created to draw the largest profit, which means appealing to the lowest common denominator. It is worse than mindless entertainment; it is mind-dulling entertainment. How much worse is that than a taboo word?


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