The report found no difference between PG-13 and R-rated films in the most explicit portrayals of suicide.
Lead author Patrick Jamieson said that although it is impossible to establish a causal connection, the tripling of US teen suicide since 1960 has coincided with the increase in movie suicide portrayals. The results, based on an analysis of 855 top-grossing films, indicate the need for further study of the effects of movie suicides on adolescent audiences, the authors concluded.
“We know as well that exposure to movie-portrayed suicide correlates with thinking that one cannot get effective treatment for mental health problems,” Mr Jamieson said. “There is something seriously wrong with a movie ratings system that attaches a PG-13 rating to a movie containing explicit, graphic modelling of suicide.”
A Motion Picture Association of America rating of PG-13 means special parental guidance is strongly suggested for children under 13 and that some material may be inappropriate for young children.
An R rating means viewing is restricted and anyone under age 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.
The researchers looked at the top 30 movies in the US each year from 1950 from 2006.
From the 855 that had suicide references, they set up a suicide explicitness scale and weighted the portrayals in each movie based on how much or little of a suicide was merely suggested or was graphically shown.
From 1968 to 1984, movies rated R had five times more highly explicit suicide behaviour portrayals than those rated G (general audiences) and PG (parental guidance suggested). The category PG-13 was instituted in 1985, but the report found PG-13 and R films became indistinguishable when it comes to depictions of suicides.
The study was carried out by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, and published in the August issue of Archives of Suicide Research.