Are Retailers Selling Violent Content to Children?

FTC survey finds more stores, movie theaters turning away underage kids

Here's some new data sure to stir the debate over the impacts of media and entertainment violence on children. A new survey from the Federal Trade Commission found that more retailers and movie theaters are enforcing age-based content ratings by turning kids away.

Even though the FTC sees improvement here, the results will probably do little to quell attacks on the entertainment and media industries for allowing some violent and mature content to get into kids' hands. 

In the FTC's undercover shopping surveys, unaccompanied 13-to-16 year olds try to buy R-rated movie tickets, R-rated DVDs, unrated DVDs, CDs carrying a Parental Advisory Label or video games rated M.

Video game retailers had the highest level of compliance—13 percent of underage teenage shoppers were able to buy an M-rated video game, a rate unchanged since 2010. Four of the six major game retailers refused to sell M-rated games to 90 percent or more of underage shoppers. Though Target had a 100 percent enforcement rate for video games, it had a less-than-stellar record for selling R-rated DVDs, permitting sales to 51 percent of underage shoppers.

Ratings enforcement at the movie box office is at its highest level since the FTC began its mystery shopper program in 2000. Fewer than one-quarter of the underage shoppers were able to buy an R-rated movie, down from one-third in 2010. Some theater chains are better than others, with AMC Entertainment having the highest turn-away rate at 95 percent.

Sales to minors of R-rated movie DVDs and unrated DVDs both decreased from 2010, down to 30 percent for R-rated DVDs (from 38 percent) and to 30 percent for unrated DVDs (down from 47 percent). Blockbuster, Best Buy, Walmart and Kmart denied more than three-quarters of the purchase attempts for R-rated DVDs.

Music CD sales with the Parental Advisory Label could still use some work, though retailers of explicit-content music are increasingly turning away children. Fewer than half of underage shoppers (47 percent) were able to purchase CDs with the label, down from 64 percent in 2010 and 72 percent in 2009.

The FTC recognized the progress but called for tighter self-enforcement. "Retailers can still strengthen their commitment to limit children's access to products that are rated or labeled as potentially inappropriate for them," said Charles Harwood, acting director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau.

Among President Obama's 23 executive actions signed in the wake of the Newtown disaster was a directive to the Centers for Disease Control to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, including investigating the relationship between video games and media images, and violence.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has also introduced a similar bill to study media and entertainment violence. He is holding a roundtable on the issue today.