Adam Thierer: Parents not politicians should be in charge

Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C., says that parents, not the government, should be in charge of children’s Internet use.

By Adam Thierer

 Raising kids in the Information Age can be challenging. There are many technologies and types of media to deal with: TV, music, video games, cell phones, instant messaging, Internet Web sites, social networking and so on. It’s enough to leave many parents feeling overwhelmed and wondering how to effectively manage what their kids see, hear, and play.

Many politicians are quick to suggest one possible solution: regulation. If there is potentially offensive content on any of those media platforms, why not have government officials impose some limits and help parents out? We see this instinct playing out today when the Federal Communications Commission proposes regulating violent programs on broadcast or cable TV, or when federal or state lawmakers propose laws aimed at regulating video games, the Internet, or social-networking sites.

But regulation can be a blunt instrument. The problem with government censorship is that it treats all households as if we had the same tastes or values. In the past, allowing the government to establish a regulatory “community standard” for the entire nation made sense to many since it was difficult for families to enforce their own “household standard.” In essence, the off button on TVs and radios was the only technical control at a parent’s disposal. In that environment, many believed that government should act as a surrogate for parents, given the lack of control families had over their media decisions.

But if it is the case that families now have the ability to effectively tailor media consumption to their own preferences and craft their own household standard, then the regulatory equation can and should change. Regulation can no longer be based on the supposed helplessness of households to deal with content flows if families have been empowered and educated to make content determinations for themselves.

We have reached that point today. In a new Progress & Freedom Foundation book, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, I show that there has never been a time in our nation’s history when parents have had more tools and methods at their disposal to determine and then enforce what is acceptable in their homes and in the lives of their children.

Private controls have two major advantages over public regulation: speed and customization. Government standards typically take years to enforce and litigate, since thorny First Amendment issues are always raised. And, again, private controls and tools allow families to tailor media to their own needs and values when they need to.

These tools include the various content rating and labeling systems, the V-Chip, set-top box parental controls (including gaming console controls), personal video recorders, Internet and mobile media filtering and screening services, online monitoring tools, and much more. Most of these tools are available free of charge from media providers or Web sites. More sophisticated tools can be purchased. Some Internet monitoring software, for example, can cost $20-$50, but they give parents unparalleled, CIA-like surveillance powers over their children’s online communications activities.

Certainly, no rating system is perfect and no parental-control tool is foolproof. Many critics are fond of pointing to supposed deficiencies in certain voluntary rating systems or technological controls and then attempt to use them to indict all private solutions. But ratings and parental-control tools need not be perfect to be preferable to government regulation.

Importantly, surveys show that many households choose to ignore technical controls altogether and instead use a mix of household media rules. In my new book, I group these media consumption rules into four general categories: (1) “what”; (2) “where”; (3) “when and how much”; and, (4) “under what conditions” rules.

For example, many of us are familiar with this very common household media rule: “You have to finish your homework before you get to watch any TV or play any games.” But the rules can get much more elaborate than that. Many families establish a formal “media allowance” for their kids. For example, my wife and I have developed a strategy of designating a specific television in our home for most of our children’s media consumption and then using a personal video recorder to amass a large library of programming we believe is educational, enriching, and appropriate for them. And then we impose limits on how much of it they can watch.

Bottom line: Parents can now tap numerous technical and non-technical tools and methods to effectively control the media in the lives of their children. Government need not make choices for families that they can now make for themselves

Adam Thierer is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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