Online services such as Netflix will from this week introduce a clear rating from a scale of U to 18 before each show or film, like in the cinema.
As of Thursday, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is rolling out the age ratings for digital steaming platforms to adopt.
It’s hoped the new guidelines will specifically help young viewers to make more informed choices.
The BBFC says their research showed it’s not just parents who want their programmes rated.
But who decides what's a 15 or an 18 and why do teens appear to be in favour of the restrictions?
What the digital age ratings actually mean
The BBFC’s age rating symbols will apply to films, videos and websites, wherever and however they are watched or used.
As they’re now been redesigned for the digital space, they will also be displayed on streaming services and websites, as well as in cinemas and on DVD and Blu-ray boxes.
The rating system starts at U and goes up to R18:
- U – Suitable for all. A film rated at U should be suitable for audiences aged four and over. Although it is impossible to predict what might upset any particular child, U films should be set with a “positive framework” and should offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror.
- PG - Parental guidance, general viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children. A PG film should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older.
- 12A - Suitable for 12 years and over (cinema).
- 12 - Suitable for 12 years and over (video release).
- 15 – Suitable only for 15 years and over. There may be nudity and sexual activity but without strong detail, while there could also be drugs, strong language and strong violence.
- 18 – Suitable only for adults.
- R18 – Restricted 18-rated films are only to be shown in licensed cinemas or supplied in licensed sex shops. It’s primarily for explicit sex or “strong fetish material” involving adults. R18 video cannot be ordered by mail.
How are they decided?
When it comes to allocating a rating, compliance officers will watch content and recommend an age rating using the BBFC Classification Guidelines.
Their recommendation is approved by the compliance manager or the head of compliance.
Compliance officers may also recommend that a film be seen again by senior members of staff, including a compliance manager or head of compliance.
This may happen if a film is on the border of two categories, or if it raises important policy or legal issues.
Content may even be referred to the president and vice presidents for them to view it before it can be classified. Occasionally, the BBFC may also call upon specialist advice before making a classification decision.
When were ratings first introduced and how have they changed?
The first ratings were introduced in 1913, one year after the BBFC was established.
Back then, there were just two ratings – U and A, which stood for Adult. Over the years, as people's perceptions have changed, ratings have been widened to incorporate PG, 12, 12A, 15 and 18.
Every four or five years, the BBFC carries out a major public consultation to find out what people think about the age rating of films and videos before they are released, and whether the classification standards meet their concerns.
When these consultations find significant changes in people’s expectations, standards and criteria are adjusted accordingly.
This means that when films are re-submitted to the BBFC due to a re-release or anniversary showing, current guidelines are used to rate them – potentially changing the classification.
For example, Jaws, originally released in 1975, was rated an A. This was an advisory category meaning that film may be unsuitable for young children.
But in 2012, the classic thriller was re-classified as a 12A when it was resubmitted for an anniversary release.
Which films and shows will be affected and how can you be sure a child won’t access 18-rated content?
Streaming services will be the main area viewers will see the change, with the BBFC calling for all platforms to clearly label their content.
Netflix is one of the more well-known services to adopt the ratings and will mark its content as of Thursday.
The BBFC advises services should enforce parental controls to give families the power to keep children’s eyes away from disturbing or inappropriate content.
If any content is unrated, the BBFC’s advice is to categorise it as 18 when parental controls are enabled.
Is this really necessary?
According to the board’s research, 87% of 12-19 year olds want to make better decisions and 97% of all teenagers want more credit for being conscious decision makers.
Plus 95% of teens said they wanted consistent age ratings they recognise from cinemas to apply to content accessed through streaming services.
More than half of teens are concerned about watching content without knowing what it contains and a third say they see content they’d rather avoid on a weekly basis.
Among the responders, 5% said watching content they’d rather avoid has a negative impact on their mental health.
The BBFC said their ratings will help young people to make these conscious decisions.
Who else informs the guidelines?
The BBFC says it carries out “large-scale research projects” with people from communities and age groups across the country to understand what matters to families and how attitudes are changing.
They find out what worries parents about things they see on-screen, the pressures young children, teens and parents can face, and how families really make decisions about what to watch.
The BBFC said they are constantly talking to children, parents, carers, and teachers to inform their guidelines.