No, Books Should Not Have Content Ratings Like Movies

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From Book Riot:

One of the great joys of my young life was reading books pitched to older children. Graduating from picture books to chapter books with pictures, then chapter books, then longer and longer books was a big deal to me. For kids’ books in the U.S., you can usually find an age range somewhere on the flap or back cover of a book. Readers and people acquiring books for readers occasionally use this as a guide for getting books for appropriate ages. In recent years, certain groups have demanded a more robust rating system for books, similar to the MPAA rating system for movies. However, there are many reasons why books should not have content ratings like movies.

The general idea behind a “rating” system for kids’ books makes sense to me. The widespread availability of the Internet means that kids have access to some of the worst information ever documented with just a few keystrokes. Technology companies attempt to keep up with this freedom by providing methods of blocking content that could be upsetting or out-of-age-range for young children. The problem with books is that there’s no way to automatically censor content in books unless you ban them, rip out specific pages, or cross out certain words with a permanent marker.

Since books are longer and more involved than movies, they’re trickier to pin down with exact content ratings. Including age ranges can sort of help, but they don’t tell you much about the content. A 10 year old is also unlikely to have the exact same experiences or sensitivities as a 10 year old from a different country, or even one from a different neighborhood.

. . . .

Jon Lewis, author of Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry, argues that the ratings are subjective by design. We can see what he means in how certain movies are declared to be far more “adult” than others.

. . . .

Parents don’t even seem to like the MPAA rating system all that much, criticizing it for desensitizing children to violence. So what’s the argument for a rating system for books?

The idea is that kids should not have access to stories that could upset them or expose them to difficult topics. The rating system outlined on Book Cave uses seven categories (crude humor/language, profanity, drug and alcohol use, kissing, nudity, sex and intimacy, and violence and horror), and then rates each category on a scale from All Ages to Adult+. The book is then weighted for a final rating. Common Sense Media gives detailed advice about how to assess various aspects of books and how to choose them for children, and promises to provide detailed reviews to help parents, guardians, and other stakeholders make decisions.

. . . .

Age ranges and reading levels are also very hit-or-miss. Reading levels were introduced in schools to make sure students were keeping up with reading demands, so there were lots of numbers introduced to explain these levels. The important part of reading levels is that children should be able to ingest and understand the majority of the book they’re reading so they don’t get discouraged. However, kids should challenge themselves with books theoretically outside of their level so they don’t get bored.

If reading levels are determined by word difficulty alone, that can also make books look less complex than they are. Age ranges and reading levels are somewhat necessary for educators to build curricula, but kids should always be allowed to seek books outside of their “level” or assigned classroom work. I’m an advocate of the method “bring kid to library and let them explore for three hours,” as my caretakers did for me.

There are problems with rating systems that use categories to determine appropriateness as well. A book might not have violence in it explicitly, but it could have imagery that gives your child a nightmare. We can’t determine how kids will react to reading in general, so over-arching rules and categorical rating systems are limited.

Rating systems that determine how “adult” a book is also impose a certain kind of life experience on childhood. They present a monolithic idea of maturity: a child can only read about violent content when they’re of the age to be familiar with it. There are children in the world who are familiar with curse words, or have experience with violent or upsetting events. “Milestones” in childhood are impossible to pinpoint because people’s life experiences are so wildly different.

Reading about difficult topics, whether or not children have experienced them, can be a good way to process complex emotions. It’s also an important way for children to develop language and understanding around “inappropriate” topics.

. . . .

At the surface, none of this sounds necessarily bad. Parents obviously want kids to read, but they don’t want kids diving into books with intense horror that will scare a 7 year old or overt descriptions of sex before a parent has had ‘The Talk’ with their kid.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes that parents are not the only people who give or choose books for children.

Schools, public and private, also give/choose books for children. Ditto for libraries.

A ratings system doesn’t need to be perfect to be useful for people who choose books for children to read.

Given the nature of a relatively small portion of books which parents are likely to find objectionable, PG doesn’t mind terribly that a ratings system might err on the side of excluding books that only a small portion of the children’s families would likely find objectionable.

A single book is not the only way a child can learn about something the child or family might regard as objectionable. There are zillions of books available on all manner of topics, presenting them in a wide variety of ways.

As a final observation, PG notes that opinion pieces that claim it’s important for children know about this or that at a particular age are generalizing about children in a manner that assumes that all children of a certain age are ready to understand this or that fact of life. They also often assume that getting such information with a certain degree of specificity is important when a more general discussion might provide some or all children with the information they need to know and assuming they can extrapolate from the general to the specific without having the specific laid out in great detail.

PG’s experience growing up on ranches and farms with livestock of various sizes and shapes exposed him to some universal elements of mammalian interaction between the female and male of a given species gave him the general idea concerning male/female reproduction cause and effect among mammals of other types.

He expects that any child growing up in a neighborhood with more than one or two dogs might have the same general type of experience from time to time without the specificity provided in a book describing such details between human males and females of different ages.

But, as usual, PG could be completely wrong about this whole subject.

22 thoughts on “No, Books Should Not Have Content Ratings Like Movies”

  1. The fundamental problem with ratings systems is that they are inevitably dominated — most immediately, but virtually all within a few years — by hypocrites. One of the reasons that I was not an active supporter of Al Gore in 2000 is that that would have given his then-wife (who couldn’t have spelled “First Amendment” if granted the first dozen letters and a free fill-in vowel — witness PMRC; it’s still an act, lady) a platform for further nonsense. All you need to do is take a look at who the MPAA allows to sit on its semianonymous ratings panels; you’ll end up in Jacobellis land (can’t define pornography, but “I know it when I see it”). As Janis Ian† noted a few years back

    I watched the news last night at nine
    Saw a head blown off somebody’s spine
    The women moaned and the children screamed
    Doesn’t anybody else think that’s obscene?

    And that’s before considering things like Hamlet’s suggestion that Ophelia would be better off in a brothel (“nunnery” was lower/middle-class city slang for “brothel”) and that Juliet was always played by a young boy. Bluntly, any rating system that is designed to keep wide swaths of “vulnerable children” from being harmed or deceived by what they’re hearing but won’t even try to deal with InfoWars/Alex Jones deserves a different kind of rating:

    Rated I-22 for arbitrariness, cognitive dissonance, undisclosed conflicts of interest, and suppression of non-mainstream concepts and situations. The intellectually-impaired and undereducated are severely cautioned. Those without a bachelor’s degree admitted only when accompanied by a lawyer, professor of literature or history, or licensed behavioral health provider.

    Or, as Mr Cromwell once said to another “ratings body” (the Kirk of Scotland):

    I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken: Precept may be upon Precept, Line may be upon line, & yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a word of Judgement, that they may fall backward & be broken, and be snared, and be taken: There may be a spirituall fullnesse, which the world may call drunkennesse as in the second of the Acts; there may be as well a carnall confidence, upon mis-understood, and mis-applyed Precepts, which may be called Spirituall Drunkennesse, There may be a Covenant made with Death and Hell, (I will not say yours was so) but judge if such things have a politick aime, to avoide the overflowing scourge, or to accomplish worldly interests, and if therein we have con∣federated with wicked and carnall men, and have respect, or otherwise drawn in to associ∣ate with us, whither this be a Covenant of God and spirituall bethink your selves, we hope we do. I pray you read the 28th of Esaiah from the 5th, to the 15th. and do not scorn to know that it is the Spirit that quickens and giveth life, and the Lord give you and us understanding to do that which is well-pleasing in his sight, com∣mitting you to the Grace of God I rest[.]

    The tl;dr version: Nobody gets to predetermine or prescreen what my kids may or may not see — especially without knowing them, and absolutely certainly without having read/listened to/seen in full the material in question. That way lies children’s classics like Sambo… and the sin of ignorance.

    † An out-long-before-that-was-acceptable LBGTQ activist, who was including more-than-ambiguous-less-than-archly-coded material in her works half a century ago… including the two songs for which she’s best known.

      • I always hate relying (solely upon) the Bible in these things because it’s not the pretty-close-to-universally-in-English accepted sourcework like Shakespeare is. Forget for a moment all of the non-Christians: Even within Christianity, it’s at best one of several competing translations, and there isn’t even complete agreement on what texts are part of it! And then there’s the whole Jewish v Christian issue…

        Stick to Shakespeare for these arguments/illustrations. If nothing else, at least its baggage is less weighty (and it’s better written)… and the example of Coriolanus will usually stop just about anyone in their tracks, because it exposes “never actually read the stuff I’m objecting to” without threatening identity as a True Believer.

          • All of the so-called “children’s Bibles” do. I seem to recall a couple of evangelical “convert the skeptics” editions from the 60s and 70s (presented as “good news,” but not formally the Good News Edition that is a slightly-expurgated NIV).

            My explicit point was that using the Bible as a source is poor strategy because once one criticizes “the Bible” as having any flaws too many ears close, brains turn off, pitchforks and torches get readied… and communication ends. Forever. (It’s very much the same with the Q’ran.)

  2. I like the informational content I see on places like Netflix (smoking, nudity, violence, etc) It’s quick shorthand to know the kind of content that might be there so I can decide (of course you could end up with a novel of keywords if they tried to cover everything that might trigger someone so there’s no perfect option)
    When it comes to kids, I’ll just be a proper parent and pre-screen what they will see, and then I will make the decision. Not Tipper Gore or some evangelical or other busybodies.

  3. Any rating system will eventually try to implement an enforcement system.
    Likewise, enforcers will eventually try to take over the rating system.
    Credentialed experts will try to take over both.

  4. If your kids like to read, they’ll raid your own bookshelves when you’re not looking — I know I did. And there they are likely to find puzzlement, boredom, absorbing reads, surprises, and horror of various kinds. Just like life itself.

    I’m of the opinion that no one actually reaches maturity without some of that anyway. A life without these isn’t one you’d wish on your children. You don’t have to push it on them early, but it can’t really be avoided altogether.

  5. The OP title is both right and wrong.
    Right (barely) if you limit yourself to thr coarse and (with one exception) movie ratings. While there are technically six theatrical movie categories (G, PG, PG-13, R, X, NR) realistically there is PC-13 and a handful of ocassional animated G’s and horror R’s each year.

    The exception for movies is in the digital realm, PCs and Gaming consoles with Parental Controls that actually work. The best implementation I know of is in the XBOX line which for 15+ years has had three levels of parental controls on games and videos. The crudest is like TVs, where the system looks at the content metadata and refuses access to non-approved games and videos. More sophisticated, the GUI hides non-approved content whether installed, on disk, or in the online stores. And the final level restricts access to approved hours (say M-F, 4-6PM) and a weekly/monthly quota. Purchases are similarly controlled.

    Streaming services have similiarly *optional* rating and control systems, typically by allowing child accounts and password protecting adult accounts.

    Obviously, none of this applies to pbooks but it could *easily* and very granularly implemented via ebook metadata and DRM. Imagine, an actual added value use for DRM! Will wonders never cease?

    Where the OP totally misses the boat is that books *already* have a content rating system that is as coarse and even more useless than the movie system: Category pigeon holes.

    What are the shelving categories but a crude rating system? Kids books, young adult, cozy mystery, erotica, whatever…

    Pretending books don’t need a rating system ignores *why* pigeonholing exists.
    What makes the existing system worthless is that it is toothless. It has no controls and anybody can ignore the categories and can shelve erotica next to chapter books. In stores and in libraries, which is where all the teapot tempests come from.

    What makes the gaming and streaming industry approach work is that it is opt-in. Parents who don’t care what their kids are exposed to can blythly ignore the *optional* controls that only exist for the families who do care. So why oppose them?

    As for ebooks, the easiest thing to implement on a kids reader is a whitelist system: when enabled, only parent-authorized books will be accesible to the kid account. Obviously, kids can bypass the reader if they don’t trust their parent’s judgment but by them they’re teenagers and beyond control anyway. 😉

  6. At age 8 years old had a reading age of 21 years (who and how, rate these measures?).
    At age 10 read Zola’s Madame Bovary (in English) — [having already read unexpurgated editions of The Last of the Mohicans, Huckleberry Finn — and all Richmal Crompton’s output, plus all the Jennings stories, and (Capt. W.E. John) Biggles stories, and Henry Treece’s stories; H.G. Wells; Jules Verne; yadda yadda yadda] . Changed my life. Nothing after Zola was out of reach — it put me in touch with the notion that well rendered fiction and non-fiction could be art as well as entertainment]*. D.H. Lawrence; T.E. Lawrence; Jack Kerouac. Could go on — to cut to the quick — NO BOOK SHOULD EVER BE OFF LIMITS FOR ANY CURIOUS KID — NEVER — EVER — NO.

    • Tell that to the parents.
      See what they reply.

      Ideals are fine but they’re the ones responsible for the kid.

      How many would want their ten year old reading John Norman’s GOR books, or John Ringo’s GHOST? The latter is a fun read if you’re familiar with tough guy action thrillers who understands it was a writing exercise in excess that actually found a *big* audience, to Ringo’s surprise.

      But a curious kid? That will depend on the kid.
      And don’t even think of GOR which starts out as Burroighs pastiche and evolves into…something else, which many adults will run from. Plenty more where those examples come from, too.

      Not. An. Absolute.

      • On the one hand, parents should ordinarily be involved. Not a rating system, whether imposed by well-meaning people or — as is all too frequent — not. There’s no need for a contemporary Index Maleficus.

        On the other hand, maybe not when the parents are illiterate, under Twain’s definition (the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot).

        The point being that an uninvolved “rating system” imposed by people who do not know the curious kids is absolutely in the wrong.

        • About the rating systems I described, what is *imposed*?

          Do you see anybody decrying controls on games or streaming?
          They exist, turned off, until parents actively turn them on.
          If a mother wants to buy her 8 year old kid GRAND THEFT AUTO, she can. I saw it in the BEST BUY checkout. None of my business.

          But *some* parents might object to *their* kid playing an explicit criminal simulator designed for 18 year olds. The rest just never turn the settings on.

          It doesn’t get any more inobtrussive, so what’s the problem?
          Is it the principle of the idea?

          • Felix, every rating system is imposed, either directly or as an industry response that “no, you don’t have to shut us down entirely, we’ll self-regulate.” H’wood first imposed the Code in response to unwanted attention from the Kansas City authorities (a high-ranking attorney was the brother-in-law of a major congregation’s pastor, and another was a cousin(?) of a nearby archibishop), and the MPAA is merely a mild evolution that supposedly removes the “politically unacceptable” grounds in the Code. The Comics Code Authority arose after Congressional hearings on the corrupting influence of comics on America’s youth. Those labels on records (damn, giving away my age) were an attempt to undermine PMRC. Even questions like whether Go Ask Alice and The Outsiders and The Bluest Eye could be shelved in a children’s/teen interest area — whether in a bookstore or a library — or were “rated” as “adult.”

            If all the system does is provide descriptors, that’s still subject to abuse but potentially less unacceptable. What inevitably happens, though, is creeping censorship over time as the hypocrites gain control. Without naming the game, there’s one from a decade and a half ago that was labelled M (instead of T) for — so far as either I or my avid-gamer kids could determine — the “romance element” being same-sex, and leaving the rating aside was described using the “adult situations” moniker for little more than kissing in a secondary-to-game-action context.

            So as long as people are involved in the “rating system,” I have just as much confidence that it won’t be abused as I do in Hedley Lamarr’s honesty (and do not get me started on the “ratings battles” prior to release of Blazing Saddles).

            • I not sure the Catholic Legion Of Decency was a response to a threat of being shut down. While it is nowhere near as powerful as it once was, it had real power through the Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties.

        • I’m not sure the very recent introduction of literacy has produced better parents than the prior 100,000 years. Even today, parents without a single day of medical school gather information and make decisions about their kids.

      • I am a parent of two teenagers. Gor? I would merit a discussion (which any teenager would find agonizing), but I would try to keep them from reading it, if they wanted to. I would even let them read Ayn Rand, which would merit an even longer discussion.

    • How about allowing any adult to communicate or advocate whatever he chooses to an 8-year-old? Is it necessary to have the communication in writing?

      I was a very lucky 8-year-old. Mr Mulane, the old guy down the street, released about a dozen boxes of DC and Marvel comics to the neighborhood kids. Glorious.

    • Having been a victim of a kid who decided to use Danielle Steel’s books as a guide for experimentation and myself as the test dummy, no, kids shouldn’t have unlimited access to books. The adults in their lives need to be aware of what they have access to and take responsibility for it and their charges.

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