Distorting Numbers in the Debate over Parental Controls

by on March 26, 2007 · 4 comments

The Parents Television Council (PTC), a media activist group that routinely petitions Congress and the FCC for greater content regulation, recently released a new poll which they say proves that the V-Chip and parental control technologies have been a failure.

Their poll finds that only 11% of those surveyed said they used the V-chip or their cable box parental controls to block unwanted content from their television during the past week. And that result is virtually unchanged from a poll they took last September asking the same question. Therefore, the PTC concludes that recent efforts by broadcasters and cable companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars educating families about these parental control tools have been a failure. And, unsurprisingly, the PTC feels that this again shows the need for government regulators need to step in and do more national nannying for us.

As I’ll make clear in a moment, the V-Chip and current television ratings are certainly not perfect. And I have no doubt that household usage of these tools is quite low for reasons I’ll get into. But let me first address what appears to be a rather glaring methodological deficiency of this PTC poll which makes it difficult to take seriously.

According to the PTC press release announcing the poll results, “The PTC paid for a few questions to be included in omnibus telephone surveys of adults nationwide, conducted by Zogby International.” In other words, the PTC poll randomly surveys all households, which means they are including in their polling results the millions of households that have absolutely no children in them.

This makes their poll results highly suspect. It simply does not make sense to survey all homes about V-Chip or parental control usage because adult-only homes almost certainly would not be using any parental controls to block programming. This would be like polling all Americans, including homes made up of only adults, about whether or not they had baby locks on their kitchen cabinets!

And we’re talking about a significant percentage of homes here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 68% of American homes do not have any children under 18 years of age in residence. Therefore, the only population that should be surveyed when asking about parental controls is the 32% of homes that currently have children in residence.

Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that even for those homes with children in residence, not all of them will need to use parental control technologies before a certain age (4-5) or after a certain age (15-16) because many parents do not let their kids watch much TV until a certain age and then after a certain age trust their kids or just talk to them about objectionable fare.

Now, that being said, I am sure that even if the PTC had conducted its poll properly, the numbers would still be quite low for homes with children, but that doesn’t mean that the V-Chip or parental controls are a failure. As I argue in my big upcoming report on parental controls, surveys show that many families instead rely on informal household “media consumption rules,” preferring them to technical controls such as the V-Chip or set-top box controls. For example, a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that “Almost all parents say they have some type of rules about their children’s use of media.” And a 2006 Kaiser survey of families with infants and preschoolers revealed that 85 percent of those parents who let their children watch TV at that age have rules about what their child can and cannot watch. 63 percent of those parents say they enforce those rules all of the time. About the same percentage of parents said they had similar rules for video game and computer usage.

We’re all familiar with these household media consumption rules even though we often don’t think of them as “rules.” These household media rules can be grouped into three general categories: (1) “Where” rules; (2) “When and how much” rules; and, (3) “Under what conditions” rules.

For example, many families establish “where” rules regarding the placement of TVs or other media devices in the home. In our home, my wife and I have assigned our kids a specific TV for the limited selection of programming we allow them watch and that TV is located in the living room where we keep and eye or ear on what their kids are watching at all times. And all of us probably heard this “under what condition” rule at some point in our childhood: “You have to finish your homework before you get to watch any TV.” And an example of a “when and how much” rule would be: “No TV or video games after 8:00,” or, more stringently: “No TV or games on a school night.”

Many families get even more creative by devising a “media allowance” for their children (especially as they get older) to allow them to consume media within certain boundaries. In our home, my wife and I generally allow our kids one hour of TV viewing per night on weeknights, and two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Carrot-and-stick incentives can also be used with this approach. For example, better behavior or improved grades at school might be rewarded by adding additional viewing time to their overall weekly media allowance.

And there are countless other examples of such formal and informal household media rules, or the creative use of new technologies to control children’s media consumption. 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 PVR to amass a large library of programming we believe is educational, enriching and appropriate for them. Dozens of programs can be cataloged and archived in this fashion and then supplemented with VHS tapes, DVDs and computer software. As a result, when we allow our children some TV time, we always know that the episodes of “Dora the Explorer,” “Go Diego Go,” “Blue’s Clues” and “The Wiggles” that we approve of for our kids will be available. Needless to say, such content tailoring was not an option for families in the past.

The PTCs new poll simply doesn’t take things like this into account. For those looking to conduct an honest and accurate assessment of the true state of parental control methods in homes, their polls should: (1) only survey those households with kids in them; (2) then the pollsters should also ask the approximate ages of the children in the home to determine how relevant technical controls are for the family; and, (3) ask whether the parents rely on other, non-technical methods of controlling media consumption. Only then would you be able to draw reasonable conclusions about how American families go about controlling their children’s media consumption and the role technical controls or industry ratings play in the process. But the PTC poll fails on all these counts.

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