Given the nature of this topic, it may not be necessarily something that most people over the age of 18 think about. But, due to the changing nature of media consumption brought about by the democratisation of the Internet, I think this is something that is worth discussing as the nature of media restrictions have not kept pace.
Age restrictions and content warnings are important. Although certain media effects paradigms have largely been exaggerated and violence is a fundamental part of story telling within specific media forms (as discussed in a previous post), young people who are not yet fully developed cognitively should not be exposed to ‘mature’ content that they will not fully understand. Two relatively high profile cases come to mind as examples of the dangers of children engaging with mature content. The first example is a case of children re-enacting a rape scene from Grand Theft Auto 5 at a school in England. The second was the ‘Slender Man stabbing‘; a case where two 12 year old girls stabbed another young girl multiple times in an attempt to appease the Slender Man. Although this second example is not about media proper, it still involves an urban legend that arose from the internet and gained notoriety through the internet. What these two examples have in common is young people engaging with mature content and then adopting anti-social behavior that is traceable to that content. I can also think of a third example involving non-children who do not appear to be cognitively developed. This is the example of the online rape mod that was added to GTA Online that allowed players to commit acts of sexual assault to other players in the game; if the oft quoted reason for playing video games “to do things I cannot do in real life” holds any water, there are people who are using this medium to act out certain rape fantasies, and that is a problem.
Now, I can already hear the hounds of protest bellowing away about this being media and, as I have said myself, media effects being largely overstated. This is true, but, we are talking about something completely different; we are talking about learning and socialisation. Socialisation is the process through which individuals learn and engage with certain societal ideas about what is and what is not acceptable behavior; this occurs through the internalisation of certain ideas as they pertain to society (here is a link to the Wikipedia page on socialisation if you so desire). In this instance, the issue is learned behavior. Like it or not, for better or for worse, media is an educational device and not everything on media is going to be positive education. For young people who are still learning about the world, certain ideas represented in certain forms of media will not be appropriate for them. Using the above example again, how many primary school students would have ever encountered sexual assault before? God willing, hopefully none! But even as an idea, a concept that exists, how many young children would have had a conversation about the causes and effects of sexual assault? In my experience, most adults do not even want to have this conversation. The point I am trying to make here is, how can we expect children to process this information in a healthy manner when they have no perspective or experience as to what it is they are actually being exposed to; there is even the possibility that this might be the first time they are exposed to such things, and as such, learn about them that way. This is why age restrictions and content warnings exist, and why they matter.
Previously, and even I remember this as a child, controlling the flow was as simple as checking IDs at a store. This process has become far more complex with the Internet becoming the main means of distribution for media content. Simply put, it is difficult for a website to check a user’s ID. They can add the ‘enter date of birth’ barriers for the website, but even the most haphazard 12 year old can delay long enough to figure this one out. Parent locks can be put on things like Netflix accounts, but this is only a small barrier to the large swathes of means through which media content can be acquired on the Internet.
I am not going to be able to come up with a hard and fast solution here. But, thinking about this issue more creatively than just age barriers is something I would endorse (with all that social and political capital I carry… yup, none). A way this could be done is viewing rating systems less as hard and fast rules, and more as guidelines. For instance, if you refer to the photo above – ignoring the age restriction for the time being – what does this actually tell us about the content. There are four “notes”: violence, horror, offensive language, and sexual themes. Firstly, violence; This could mean a magnitude of things from the most mundane forms of interpersonal violence through to modes of systemic violence. Secondly, horror; This could also mean almost anything. What is horrific for one person may be less so for the next. This could also be anything from jump scares, psychological torment, gore, or a combination of all three. Thirdly, offensive language; This one, to be fair, is relatively straight forward. Finally, sexual themes; this is probably the most ambiguous of the lot. Sexual themes could be anything from consensual sexual activity, sexual violence, or even just implied sexuality of some description. Sexual themes as a category of content is so vague that it could pertain to something as simple as discussion about sex taking place within a movie or game. Effectively, the content categories do not in and of themselves say much about the content of the game. Remove the R16 rating from this content warning and it does not provide much useful information.
Instead, in the age of the Internet, removing the age restrictions but making the content warnings clearer could be a way forward. A simple place this could improve is clear demarcations of ‘sexual violence’, ‘violence’, and ‘consensual sexual activity’ for example. Refer back to the image above, having ‘violence’ and ‘sexual themes’ listed as separate content warnings does not actually communicate whether or not there is sexual violence present within this media text for instance. Violence comes in different categories; sexual violence is a different form of violence then say, gun violence for instance. Simply stating ‘violence’ as a catch all describer does not communicate the category of violence present. What needs to be in place is a more detailed description of what type of content is actually in the media text.
This alone does not solve the issue of people potentially engaging with content that they are unable to understand. The big thing here is education. There needs to be more of an effort to educate children about certain forms of violence and their implications at an earlier age; especially due to the unregulated nature of the Internet. If there is a real and sincere concern over the nature of mediated violence – rather than just using it to play political football – this has to be the way forward. It is going to be increasingly difficult to deny young people access to mature content as the weak attempts put in place to prevent this in the online world are easily circumvented. Actively teaching young people in an educational setting what they are seeing and what it means is of fundamental importance. This needs to occur at an early age in order to prepare them for whatever media content they may encounter. For me, I can see no legitimate reason not to.