Last week the US bishops conference released a survey inquiring about parental concerns about inappropriate media content and its effect on children. Called Parents’ Hopes & Concerns About the Impact of Media on their Children, the survey suggests that most parents are concerned about their children being exposed to inappropriate content, and that many are interested in parental control technology such as the V-chip.
According to the survey:
- More than 80 percent of respondents say they want control of media content involving violence, sex, illegal drug use, alcohol abuse and profane language.
- Parents are more concerned about inappropriate content on television and the Internet than other media types such as video games, music and cellphones.
- Sexual content rated highest in parental concern, with violence a not-so-close second.
- Depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, not currently considered by many ratings and parental control systems, are of concern to virtually all parents, with high percentages rating both as very important.
- Nearly all respondents (94 percent) say their family has rules about media consumption for children. In spite of this, 27 percent admit that their children are exposed to inappropriate content.
- Three-quarters of respondents believe that media product makers should do more to help protect children from inappropriate content, and 58 percent say the government should do more.
- Over two-thirds of parents (69 percent) would like to see a standard rating system for all media types rather than separate systems for each type of media.
Some of the results are odd. Parents consistently responded less emphatically when asked how concerned they were about various types of objectionable content than when asked how important it was for them to be able to control those same types of content.
For example, 84 percent of parents said they were concerned or very concerned about sexual content, but 93 percent said it was important or very important that they be able to control it. Likewise, 61 percent said that they were concerned about inappropriate content in television commercials, but 75 percent said they would use parental controls more if they could block such content. I don’t know why some parents want to control content they aren’t concerned about, but there you go.
I suspect that parental control technology is most useful on the Internet, and may also be useful in controlling access to TV shows. When it comes to objectionable advertising, I have my doubts how useful it will ever be. Certainly advertising is often deplorable—not even always because of objectionable content, sometimes just because the ads are so unpleasant. We watch little if any commercial television, but even on the radio, or perhaps especially on the radio, there are ads that cause my wife Suzanne to fly across the room to switch off the box. Sometime she forgets to turn it back on later.
When that happens, obviously, it hurts the programming as well as the advertiser (and any other advertisers coming along later). You’d think triggering that switch-off reflex would hurt an ad, and that advertisers would figure that out and make ads that people don’t mind being exposed to, but I guess advertisers aren’t necessarily as smart as you’d think they would be. (Even when she doesn’t turn them off, Suz often finds commercials insulting and a turn-off for the product rather than a positive association for it.)
Advertisement-blocking technology would be great, but it’s hard to imagine the industry going for this. The ability to deliver eyes for advertisements is the media’s lifeblood, it’s what pays for the programming. Advertisers won’t pay to air commercials only to have them blocked by three-quarters of the audience. In theory, this might make them want to adjust their commercial content so that viewers wouldn’t block them—but that assumes commercial-blocking technology ever got off the ground. (As it is, they apparently don’t have enough incentive to adjust their content so Suzanne doesn’t turn off the box.)
In many ways, we live in a toxic culture. There’s no chip to block outdoor advertising for last weekend’s #1 movie plastering the word “Kick-Ass” across billboards and buses, or to offer parents control of sexually explicit headlines in the magazine racks at the supermarket checkout aisle. No one can stop their children from seeing offensive bumper stickers or T-shirts. And of course there’s always the neighbor’s television or computer, the cellphone of the kid next door.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t parental controls, it’s that these things are socially acceptable at all. I’m not talking about censorship. I’m talking about cultural standards.
For some reason, while the survey asks whether media product makers and the government are doing enough, it doesn’t ask about media content producers, even though it is they who bear the principal moral responsibility for the proper use of the media, according to the Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica (On the Media of Social Communications).
Then there’s the parents themselves to consider. When you see parents bringing young children to R-rated movies, you realize that no chip can protect children from their own parents’ callousness and apathy.
That’s not to say the system couldn’t be better. (A ratings system capable of effectively blocking children under 17 from many of today’s R-rated movies, even if accompanied by a parent, would help.)
As it is, like it or not, conscientious parents are largely on their own.
Parental guidance: It’s a way of life, not just the rating after G.