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As parents struggle to manage online content, kids are being affected

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Joe Jensen, 2, watches television as a special treat in the afternoon, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 at his home in Seattle.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

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Michael Lowe was watching Saturday-morning cartoons with his 4-year-old son a few years ago when he learned firsthand how difficult it can be to monitor what kids watch.

Lowe left the room in his Calgary, Alberta, home for about five minutes, he said.

“When I left, we were watching cartoons,” Lowe, 36, said. “When I came back, let’s just say we weren’t watching cartoons anymore.”

Lowe’s son, like most toddlers, loved to push buttons. Left unattended for a few moments with the TV remote, the boy had stumbled onto an adult channel — one that Lowe had removed from his cable box via his service provider.

“Unbeknownst to me, they put (the channel) back,” Lowe said.

On a family trip to Hawaii shortly after, Lowe was teaching his son about volcanoes with the help of YouTube. While he could control which video his son saw, he couldn’t control the trailer for a horror movie that preceded the volcano video and left his son terrified.

All this gave Lowe an idea: What if there was a service that could offer quality educational, fun programs without the risk of changing channels or running into gory trailers? That idea eventually became Kidoodle.TV, a Netflix-like service Lowe founded in 2012 for kids up to age 10.

With the app, parents choose a variety of programs and form individual playlists for up to five kids. The website even provides parents with tutorials on how to lock out the rest of the Web while using the app on a tablet.

Lowe’s app addresses a common parental dilemma: how to control and monitor what kids watch when they can access just about anything on any number of platforms at any time.

The new normal

Lowe is like many parents who struggle with monitoring what kids see on the Internet. Online forums and mommy blogs are full of rants about the impracticality of parental filters on video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

David Williams, 58, is a Tennessee-based financial planner and dad. Williams and his wife are so fed up with Netflix’s filtering that they’re considering terminating their subscription.

“The filter is so broad that if you block R ratings, you also block unrated. Old movies have significant cultural value but are blocked in that case,” Williams said. “There is no password protection for Netflix parental controls. We have no certainty that our wishes are being accepted, except when we look at the 'recently watched' queue. It's too late and the damage may already be done at that point.”

Netflix offers a separate kids' section for age-appropriate content that is identified by a light-blue background. Parents can sign up for a profile without filters, and set up age-specific profiles for their children.

Jenny McCabe with Netflix understands Williams' concerns, but says Netflix has gone above and beyond to be kid-safe. McCabe acknowledged that the profiles are not password protected, but she said putting more barriers in the way "just makes everybody irritated."

"How many little kids can type and spell? If we made the profiles password protected, then (parents) would have to remember an extra password. Once kids are 10, they crack passwords," McCabe said. "We go really far, but we don't go into lockdown because we find that's less what parents want."

McCabe said the responsibility is on parents to monitor their kids, whether they're on Netflix or elsewhere.

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