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How the British Board of Film Classification Is Updating Age Ratings for Violence, Sex, Drug Use

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The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has updated its classification guidelines, informed by its largest-ever public consultation, meaning its age ratings will change according to changing public opinion, including on the on-screen depiction of violence, sex and drug use.

Throughout 2023, the BBFC spoke to 12,000 people across the U.K. “to explore what matters most to audiences when it comes to classification,” finding that “people are now more concerned about depictions of violence on screen in content across all age ratings.” With audiences expressing concerns about how distressing or disturbing some forms of violence can be, the BBFC said that “a higher rating may be required for violence across all age-rating categories, especially when particularly intense or impactful scenes occur.”

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Compared with its previous research study in 2019, the BBFC said on Tuesday, it found some concerns have remained the same, while others have risen in importance for audiences. “Then, as now, sexual violence was the biggest area of concern for U.K. audiences,” it said. “Since 2019, however, suicide and self-harm has risen to the second biggest area of concern – ahead of sex, violence and drugs. People expressed a clear desire to be warned about this type of content, and the BBFC will continue to highlight suicide and self-harm in its content advice.”

Surveyed people are “largely in agreement” with the BBFC’s approach towards classifying drug content across all age categories, but audiences have become “more relaxed about cannabis use and solvent misuse, meaning the inhalation of chemicals for the purpose of getting “high,” than they were in 2019,” as long as it is “not detailed, glamorized or frequent,” the organization also highlighted. “The BBFC will therefore take a less restrictive approach to such material, but maintain its current standards on other drugs. People also felt the BBFC’s current policy towards classifying solvent misuse was overly cautious, and this finding has been supported by expert advice. Such content will now be treated less restrictively.”

However, surveys found that people were “calling for a more cautious approach to classifying sex scenes at the border of 12A/12 and 15” ratings. “Participants were concerned by the level of sexual detail, nudity and the duration of the sex scenes rated 12A/12 under the 2019 guidelines,” the BBFC said. “Similar content is now more likely to be rated 15. However, the research also indicates that audiences are happy for classification to be more lenient towards some sex references at the 15/18 borderline, especially in comic contexts.”

The latest research found some new areas of worry. “Parents are concerned about the normalization of bad language, especially terms with sexual or misogynistic connotations,” the BBFC highlighted. “For example, terms such as ‘son of a bitch,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘dick.’ The worry is that young viewers may hear and repeat such language.” Its conclusion: “Language such as this may now require a higher age rating.”  

Said BBFC president Natasha Kaplinsky: “We’re dedicated to ensuring what we do is responsive to the ever-evolving world around us. Since we last asked people across the country what they thought about our standards, society has changed, and opinions have followed.”

Explained CEO David Austin: “The effectiveness of what we do relies entirely on trust. To ensure we have that trust, and to get to the heart of what audiences think and feel, we go directly to them.”

The ratings body also put the spotlight on streaming giant Netflix‘s use of its ratings. “Our members are our number one priority, and as the first streaming service to voluntarily carry BBFC age ratings on 100 percent of our catalog, we’re proud they can choose shows safe in the knowledge that everything is rated to highly-trusted standards which reflect the expectations of U.K. audiences,” said Benjamin King, senior director, public policy – U.K. & Ireland at Netflix.

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