Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced this week that from October all music videos shown in the United Kingdom will carry a movie-style age-appropriateness rating, stating whether each is appropriate for 12, 15, or 18-year olds. But far from shielding young people from semi-pornographic depictions of women and gun-toting rappers, the research shows that Cameron may be worsening any problem and acting on the basis of dubious logic.
We’re all familiar with the thought process, as the US and Australia have tried similar measures in the past: if young people are told that they shouldn’t watch these videos then they will dutifully obey. And to an extent Cameron is right: research from as far back as the early 1990s showed that 10-12 year olds agreed that sexual music videos were not appropriate for them.
But in many other respects Cameron’s arguments are simply not supported by the research.
First, it is not clear whether labelling music as inappropriate makes it less or more attractive to young people. One study found that 11-14 year olds were less interested in an album when it bore the “parental advisory sticker” than when it did not, but another found that when students were told that an album had been declared legally obscene then they actually liked it more.
Second, by attaching an age-related warning to a given video, Cameron is sending a clear message to young people that he believes that video will have a harmful effect. Unfortunately the research shows that sending this message in and of itself causes the music to have harmful effects.
In one study I played the same song to all the participants but, before they heard it, one group of people was told that the song had been criticised by protesters for causing suicide, whereas another group was told that the song had been praised by health professionals for helping young people to work through difficult issues.
Hearing the song worsened the mood of only the “suicide” group, whereas people in the “health professionals” group were unaffected. Similarly, other research shows that listeners only perceive backwards-masked messages in music specifically when they are told to expect these.
Third, the logic underlying Cameron’s argument is clearly influenced by something called the third person effect. Research on this shows that one gains self-esteem by believing other people to be more influenced by a given object than is oneself: “You will be influenced by sexual and violent videos, even though I am not, and so I am better than you”. Also, we believe that the extent to which other people are influenced is a function of the social distance between us and them. For example, students believe themselves to be least influenced by violent and misogynistic rap lyrics followed by other students at their on university and then all other young people.
Does Cameron believe he is made more sexist or violent by watching music videos? If not then why does he think other people will be? The third person effect explains why a gentrified Tory Prime Minister believes that media-savvy kids can be influenced by music videos even though he is not.
Consistent use of highly-sexualised images of women is obviously demeaning and creates a false perceived norm that might well influence fans’ future attitudes and behaviour. Similarly, nobody wants young people watching glamorised violence, particularly when in music videos that violence is so often depicted as not causing pain or other ‘bad’ consequences.
But these are not issues of concern only to the under-18s, and “badging” the videos as age-inappropriate may have a counterproductive effect on all but the youngest viewers.
Oh, and how on earth will Cameron enforce it?
He should think again.