Almost every parent of a teenager wonders how on Earth they're going to be able to monitor what sensationalistic media images or ideas children are engrossed in today. On the radio, a pop singer boasts about her chest as a "milkshake" that brings all the boys to her yard. On the television, kids can see WB's "The Surreal Life," its sleazy reality-show plot often revolving around a porn star, Ron Jeremy. Then there are video games, which have grown increasingly sophisticated -- and unfortunately, increasingly raunchy and bloody -- since the musty old days of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.
More than half of 2-to-7-year-olds and 82 percent of 8-to-18-year-olds live in homes with at least one video game console. Video games are a multibillion-dollar industry. Two Harvard researchers, Kimberly Thompson and Kevin Haninger, recently discovered that parents of teenagers can't rely very heavily on the video game ratings system created by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulating body.
The ESRB was created a decade ago to rate video games with age-based ratings: "E" for everyone, "C" for early childhood, "T" for teens, "M" for mature, "A" for adults only, and "RP" for rating pending. The ratings are displayed on the game box, as well as the content descriptors, to help consumers make appropriate choices.
The duo chose a random sample of 81 video games rated "T" (for Teen), played each of those titles for about an hour each and analyzed all the content they observed. They found that in almost half the games -- 48 percent -- there was violence, sexual themes, profanity, substance use or gambling, and none of it was noted on the game box. In 15 percent of the games, they also found depictions of alcohol or tobacco use; only one percent of the games carried a description of that content.
The failure of a ratings system should not come as a major surprise to parents. The ratings system for television shows have been a regular disappointment. Producers rate their own programs, which is not unlike the foxes guarding the henhouse. The Parents Television Council found in the late 1990s that 65 percent of programs containing obscenities did not carry an "L" warning for coarse language, and 76 percent of shows with sexual innuendo did not carry a "D" for sexually themed dialogue.