Who Is Rating Our Content? What to Know About Rating Systems

Words by
Jake Cutler

JUN 07, 2024

Who Is Rating Our Content? What to Know About Rating Systems

The average kid today is soaking in over 7 hours of content via screens on a daily basis. That number is concerning all by itself, but especially if the content is harmful. Not all screen time is created equal — what a kid is viewing on those screens makes a big difference.

Many parents are careful to protect our kids from objectionable content but, in doing so, most of us rely almost entirely on content ratings. 

R-rated movie? Not for my 9-year old.

TV-14 series on Netflix? Probably okay for my high-schooler.

17+ dating app? Seems risky for any teenager.

Ratings can serve as a good preliminary guide, but we may look to them without question. That’s putting a lot of trust in someone else to dictate what is appropriate for my kids. And who exactly is that “someone else” that we’re delegating these content decisions to anyway? Good question.

These ratings can play a crucial role in guiding us on what is appropriate for our children. We broke it down by the following major content mediums to take a closer look at who is behind these ratings and what they base their decisions on:

Who Rates Movies?

Movies are rated by the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA), an independent division of the Motion Picture Association (MPA). CARA is made up of an independent group of parents with the goal to provide, “advance cautionary warnings to families about a movie’s content.” They use the Motion Picture Association (MPA) rating system, which was established in 1966.

What are Movie Ratings Based On?

According to CARA’s official rules, movies are evaluated in their entirety and raters consider all the aspects that “most parents would consider in determining whether that motion picture is suitable for viewing by their children,” which includes, “mature themes, language, depictions of violence, nudity, sensuality, depictions of sexual activity, adult activities (i.e. activities that adults, but not minors, may engage in legally), and drug use.” 

In addition to the basic rating, movies are also given a descriptor that provides some detail on why the movie received the rating it did (see image below for an example).

R rated movie rating explained

A couple things for parents to keep in mind:

First, despite a lot of effort to make ratings uniform, subjectivity is always going to be an element. What you consider a mature theme might not match the definition of the individuals rating the movies, for example. 

Second, once a movie receives a rating, CARA does not typically return and update it. So as cultural norms change (e.g. views on smoking), how movies are rated evolves with them. Take “16 Candles” as an example: it was rated PG in 1984 despite crude humor and full female nudity that would likely land it a more mature rating today. 
CARA does have an appeal process only for distributors or producers. One recent example of this was when the Wes Anderson film, “Asteroid City,” had its rating changed from R to PG-13 despite containing graphic nudity.

Who Rates TV Shows?

Individual TV programs are voluntarily rated by broadcast and cable television networks, or by the producers of the programs themselves (which might surprise some parents). The rating system used in the U.S. went into effect in 1997 and is called the TV Parental Guidelines. The system was created jointly by the United States Congress, the American television industry, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The TV Rating System

  • TV-Y: Suitable for all children.
  • TV-Y7: Suitable for children ages 7 and older. May contain mild fantasy violence or comedic violence.
  • TV-G: General audience. Suitable for all ages. Contains little or no violence, strong language, or adult content.
  • TV-PG: Parental guidance suggested. May contain moderate violence, mild language, or suggestive dialogue.
  • TV-14: Parents strongly cautioned. May contain intense violence, sexual content, or strong language deemed inappropriate for children under 14.
  • TV-MA: Mature audience only. Content is intended for adults and may include graphic violence, explicit language, or sexual situations.

What are TV Ratings Based On?

The criteria for TV ratings include the presence of suggestive dialogue (usually sexual), coarse or crude language, sexual situations, violence, and fantasy violence (for children’s programming only).

When displaying a rating, content labels based on the above criteria are often included as follows:

D = dialogue

L = coarse or crude language

S = sexual situations

V = violence

FV = fantasy violence

tv ratings explained

Objectivity is an even bigger concern for TV than for movies because, unlike movie ratings, TV show ratings are not decided by a single, independent group. This makes TV ratings an imperfect guide for parents. 

In fact, one study on the efficacy of TV ratings found, “TV Parental Guidelines ratings were ineffective in discriminating shows for 3 out of 4 behaviors studied. Even in shows rated for children as young as 7 years, violence was prevalent, prominent, and salient. TV ratings were most effective for identification of sexual behavior and gory violence.”

Some have also wondered about the influence of network executives on ratings, potentially swaying decisions to affix ratings that might attract a broader audience, rather than provide accurate information for parents to consider.

Who Rates Music?

Music only has two ratings — explicit or not — and that is decided by the owners of the music themselves, either artists or record companies. The explicit rating, known as a Parental Advisory Label, was introduced by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1987.

parental advisory explicit content label

What Are Music Ratings Based On?

The criteria mainly focus on explicit lyrics, including references to violence, sex, and substance abuse. Given that the rating process is voluntary, music ratings come with inconsistencies. Artists may choose not to apply the label to avoid limiting their audience, leading to some explicit content slipping through without a warning.

Who Rates Apps?

Apple and Android devices use different rating systems, but in both app stores the age ratings are determined by the developers of the app — not the app store owners or any independent entity. 

Apple uses their own age rating system for all apps in the Apple App Store and all apps available in the United States through the Google Play Store use the system developed by the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC).

Apple App Store Age Ratings
Google Play Store Age Ratings

What Are App Ratings Based On?

Apple App Store Age ratings are generated automatically from responses to a list of content descriptions identified by developers when submitting apps for approval on the store. Those descriptions include things like frequency of mild cartoon violence, intense profanity, crude humor, nudity, gambling, and more.

The IARC system used by the Google Play Store considers a similar set of criteria. It is generated automatically from responses provided by the app’s developers so it is also ultimately determined by the creator. 

Just as with music or TV shows, any age rating system that asks the creator of the content to rate the content is likely to result in inconsistencies and allow for some objectionable content to slip through.

Who Rates Video Games?

Video game age ratings are determined by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory organization for entertainment software in countries of North America. For physical video games, ESRB ratings are based on the consensus of three (or more) trained raters. Online games available for digital download are rated based on the same IARC system used by the Google Play Store for apps.

Video Game Age Ratings
E – Everyone
E 10+ – Everyone aged 10+
T – Teen
M – Mature (17+)
A – Adult (18+ only)
RP – Rating Pending
RP (likely mature 17+) – Rating pending, but content is likely for ages 17+

What Are Video Game Ratings Based On?

ESRB ratings consider both content and interactive elements in age ratings. Content considerations include: substances, blood/gore, humor, violence, gambling, language, nudity, and sexuality. Interactive elements include: in-game purchases, the ability for users to interact with each other, unrestricted internet, and location sharing.

video games ratings explained

Parenting Through a Sea of Digital Content

Understanding the complexities and potential biases within content rating systems can be very helpful for parents navigating the digital landscape. While these ratings offer a basic guideline, they are not infallible.

Each family is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Taking a tailored, intentional approach to technology and content with your kids is essential. Fortunately, great tools are available to parents now to provide their kids tech in steps or to create tailored filters on streaming content

As always, conversation with your kids matters most. Engage with them, understand their interests, and guide them towards content that aligns with your family’s values.

What do you think? How do you use these ratings to make content decisions for your own family? Let us know in the comments below.

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