SAL LAKE CITY — Three years ago at the First Baptist East Church in Lawton, Okla., concerned parents started approaching media minister Chad Gleaves for a specific type of advice: They wanted to know what to do to protect their teenagers from accessing inappropriate content through smartphones.
The trend alarmed Gleaves, the ministry's point man for media outreach and the resident techie.
"I kept seeing young people not being protected at their homes," he explained. "iPod touches, iPhones and Android smartphones were in their infancy, and they were handing these things out all the time without taking any precautions. Parents didn't know how to deal with it."
To address the needs of the First Baptist East flock, Gleaves began teaching classes about protective strategies like parental controls and accountability software. The tips extended beyond smartphones to include other platforms such as computers and the video streaming service Netflix. Gleaves later launched a website, easyparentalcontroltips.com, to serve as a databank for the content from those classes.
"What's amazing is that the people who didn't really listen three years ago, they're coming back and talking to me now," he said.
The experience of Chad Gleaves and the First Baptist East congregation illustrates how the ever-expanding queue of media options available to kids is increasing the need for parental intervention to protect children from digital content deemed harmful. However, timeless strategies do exist that will allow parents to feel empowered and positive about the media entering their homes not only today, but also down the road as media platforms continue evolving.
Television remains the most accessible form of visual entertainment media. The average viewer in the U.S. watches approximately five hours of TV every day, the Nielsen Company reported in February. And among all Americans ages two and older, 93.4 percent watched television during the fourth quarter of 2011.
While television was once the great unifier — the 1969 airing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," for example, earned a Nielsen share of more than 50 percent — today the sheer quantity of programming choices can feel overwhelming.
"Unless you're an expert on what's happening on 230-plus cable channels, you really cannot take the risk of leaving your child alone, unsupervised, with the remote control," said Melissa Henson, director of communication and public education for the nonprofit advocacy organization Parents Television Council. "Because there's quite a bit of really, really inappropriate content out there."
Henson asserts that TV content standards have deteriorated in recent years, and attributes the phenomenon to a variety of factors such as the pressure basic cable channels experience to push limits and keep pace with premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime that regularly air explicit programming. Additionally, she further contends the V-chip — a filtering mechanism included on newer televisions that allows parents to block programs depending on the rating — has done much more harm than good.
"Quite often, the control devices or the parental controls exist only to give parents a false sense of security," Henson said. "Because for example, the V-chip was supposed to be that great panacea that was going to be the cure-all for all the problems with TV. … But at the same time, because the (V-chip) exists, we have the networks saying, 'Well, we warned you it was going to be there.'
"And so what we've seen is that content has gotten substantially worse since the introduction of the V-chip — and I think it's because of the V-chip, because now they can claim that they gave parents fair warning that the content was going to be there."
Creating a 'safe harbor'
"There was once what was called the 'safe harbor' or 'family hour,'" Henson said. "There was at least an hour each night where you could put your kids in front of the TV and not have to worry too much about undue influences or inappropriate content. But that is no longer the case."
However, new innovation is trying to fill that voice: Netflix's "Just For Kids" feature launched in August of 2011 and immediately began functioning as a de facto safe harbor. Available across several Internet and game-console platforms to the 23.4 million people who subscribe to the Netflix streaming service, Just For Kids is an interface separate and apart from the traditional Netflix queue that integrates Common Sense Media age recommendations and proprietary user-preference algorithms to ensure that its young visitors will only be presented with kid-friendly viewing options that are appropriate for ages 12 and under.
"Kids like to fit in with the tribe," said David Watson, Netflix director of product innovation for kids and the creative force behind Just For Kids. "They like to understand how they are like the rest of the people around them; they like to assimilate; they like to fit in with the crowd; they like to watch more popular things."
Not coincidentally, Just For Kids also satisfies parents by fostering a safe harbor for children.
"Parents around the world generally want the same thing for their children," Watson continued. "They don't their children to be scared; they don't want their children to be bored; they don't want their children to be exposed to things that they're not developmentally ready for yet."
Henson's first advice for parents regarding television consumption is to remove TVs from children's bedrooms.
"There are surveys that indicate that upwards of two-thirds of American children have televisions in their bedrooms — and that's the first problem right there," she said. "We know based on survey data that teens and pre-teens often admit to watching programming that they know their parents would disapprove of — like MTV, for example. So if your child is alone in their room watching television and they're not supervised while they're doing it, there's a strong likelihood that they're going to be violating your household rules on TV content."
In terms of accessing the Internet through computers and smartphones, Gleaves advocates a lifestyle of accountability — a strategy that can continue into adulthood.
"Accountability," he said, "can range from software on a phone that's accountable to a parent, to software like X3Watch that doesn't block any sites and is designed for adult-to-adult accountability."
However, Henson proposes an even more aggressive tack than Gleaves regarding iPhones and Android devices.
"Your kids don't need to have all the latest technological devices," Henson said. "You don't need to give them smartphones with the ability to download video off the Internet, for example. … They don't need to have an Android or an iPhone — really, they don't. Those kinds of devices just make it all that much more difficult for parents to stay on top of what media their child is consuming."