- Some streaming sites have finally tweaked the parental controls on their platforms to allow parents to filter harmful content. Tweet This
- As a school year begins in a pandemic with no end in sight, there’s no better time than the present for parents to brush up on the latest parental control offerings. Tweet This
- With many schools starting virtually, America’s kids will continue to experience an unprecedented amount of screen time and access to electronic devices. Tweet This
The recent stir over Netflix’ forthcoming show “Cuties,” under fire for its blatant sexualization of girls, is a startling reminder of how easily children can be reached by harmful online material. With families approaching month six of closed schools and summer camps, and with most schools set to begin virtually, America’s kids will continue to experience an unprecedented amount of screen time and access to electronic devices. It’s the perfect time for parents to hit pause and see if their parental controls are as tight as they can be.
“Cuties,” for example, isn’t available yet in the United States. But if a kid were to open a Netflix profile that was left unlocked, the show’s teaser can begin rolling without them so much as pushing a button. And the teaser alone is enough to do damage. The show’s gist is clear: conservative immigrant family that doesn’t want preteen daughter joining a twerking dance troupe, bad. Daughter not even old enough to drive who wants to twerk, hero. So, all it takes is for a kid to open an unlocked Netflix account on their home-streaming platform to start immediately viewing content that some parents fear sexually grooms girls. Take my word for it, the trailer alone is enough.
So, what can parents do?
I actually started this article before the pandemic and was horrified by the skimpy parental controls on the most popular streaming sites and platforms. Given all the money and talent that goes into these sites, it’s clear from just a cursory glance that protecting kids from mature and harmful content is an industry afterthought. But when I went to finish writing it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of the streaming sites had tweaked their parental controls. No doubt this had something to do with parents spending more time looking over their kids’ shoulders and seeing for themselves that horror-inducing content is just clicks away.
In April of this year, Netflix began allowing parents to lock their account on a given profile, in addition to limiting the content on that specific account by rating and filtering out specific shows. Netflix had already allowed parents to turn off autoplay, a feature that enables one show to roll right into the next without pushing any buttons. Critics of this feature include U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, who last year proposed legislation to ban the feature on all streaming platforms.
Hawley and other supporters of the legislation argue that the auto-play feature is addictive, not just for kids but for adults, too. It certainly surrenders viewing control to the platform, which, even when the feature is turned off, proposes new content at the end of the programming. Just days ago, my three-year-old came to find me after an approved episode of “Storybots” had ended asking for a PG-rated show Netflix was advertising to him that I would not have approved. This morning, my five-year-old told me about yet another show advertised to him by Netflix when a show I had approved had ended. Just the title and picture alone scared him.
Even the strictest parents hoping to delay the introduction of a personal device may find their elementary-aged child learning on a Chromebook from the school. If parents thought restricting maturity ratings on Netflix was frustrating, they now have to reckon with the entire world wide web dropped in the laps of their children.
Likewise, Hulu updated its parental controls from the digital cave ages. Just months ago, parents were still complaining on the streaming services’ community forum that parental controls were virtually non-existent and accounts could not be locked into place. So a kid or even parent looking to turn on a “Curious George” movie would have to get past offerings like “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “An American Horror Story” first. As recently as March, one parent complained about the weak controls only to get this patronizing response from a team member:
Thanks for posting! Our Product team loves hearing your suggestions when it comes to improving your Hulu experience and checks our Ideas forum regularly. That being said, requests like this are best suited for our Ideas forum (https://hulu.tv/Ideas), where Community members can pitch new ideas or join in on existing conversations about features they're a fan of. It looks like your fellow Community members already submitted a couple related Ideas.
Thankfully, Hulu now allows restrictions similar to those offered by Netflix.
Perhaps the biggest challenge on this front is that cable programmers once did what parents now have to do as households switch to streaming platforms. Our home, for example, cut cable a year ago. My oldest daughter grew up watching “Dora” and “Curious George” when it was available on the PBS channel. Now we have a Roku, which has absolutely no topline parental controls. The company informs concerned parents that it is up to them to go into each of their apps and individually set controls, which, even while improving, are often still weak and easy for savvier teens to get around.
And many parents will face a new challenge with school beginning. Even the strictest parents hoping to delay the introduction of a personal device may find their elementary-aged child learning on a Chromebook or other personal device from the school. If parents thought restricting maturity ratings on Netflix or the like was frustrating, they now have to reckon with the entire world wide web dropped in the laps of their children. Even a recent column in The Wall Street Journal acknowledged that the best efforts of big tech corporations, like Google, to protect children learning virtually fall short and are often a frustrating headache for less-than-tech savvy parents. “I’m no tech-challenged schmo,” writes technology writer Wilson Rothman. “But staying ahead of your sneaky kids—by activating Google’s free screen-time controls and content filters—takes a bit of work.” It also stops working when the user turns 13, which is right when they are prime targets for online porn and sex-trafficking websites.
There are endless resources and articles ready to walk parents through how to control and filter the various tech their kids are using today. For a multi-trillion-dollar industry, parents are bound to feel rightfully disappointed in the many flaws, loopholes, and hassles they entail. And there are those out there who will tout their screen-free purism as the only way to manage. But for most parents, that isn’t practical or manageable. Unless you are Amish, it’s not a permanent solution to a present-day problem.
And even the Amish teens who run the booth at my local farmer’s market have tablets now. So, as a school year begins in a pandemic with no end in sight, there’s no better time than the present for parents to brush up on the latest parental control offerings and to hit the community forums of big tech with some pointed comments of their own.