Parental Controls Are Everywhere, But Can You Set Them Up?

Apr 14, 2009

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Recently the "Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," was passed. As part of this law, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) has formed the "Online Safety and Technology Working Group." This group will report to the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information on industry-implemented online child safety tools and efforts.

This will be a big picture look at the many types of parental control software that are available and how/if they are effective in protecting kids from inappropriate content. This is not an easy task, specifically because technology is moving so fast and has integrated into our kid's lives at many levels.

Here is a brief list of where parental controls can be found in our lives today:

  • TV: V-Chip hardware built into TVs for broadcast television ratings based blocking  
  • Cable TV: Providers like Comcast have controls built into cable boxes  
  • Satellite TV: Much like cable, parental controls are built in  
  • DVRs: Services like TiVO provide parental control tools  
  • Video Game Consoles: Wii, X-Box, Playstation all provide different parental controls based on ESRB games ratings and online activities  
  • Cell Phones and Mobile Devices: Some like iPod have parental control software on the phone, most others allow parents to control their children's accounts through a Web site  
  • Computers: Newer Mac and Windows operating systems provide basic parental controls and filters. Desktop client filtering and parental control software is popular  
  • Cars: yes, now your car offers the ability to lock how fast your child can go, how loud they can play the stereo and more
  • Online Services and Applications: iTunes, Netflix, and others provide the ability to block content or sales based on parental preferences  

As a parent, it is overwhelming to attempt to keep up with kids and the need to interact and set all these controls. As recent study shows, even parents who want to actively be involved and set these controls, often do not set them up correctly. Global Consulting firm User Centric conducted a study on the effectiveness of parental controls in electronic devices. 20 parents and 20 children were gathered, with the parents asked to set up parental controls and children asked to bypass them. Surprisingly, failure rates were high: 31% (DVR), 36% (mobile phone), 42% (V-Chip), 47% (game console). The study concluded, "Overall, User Centric found that: participants' lack of understanding about ratings compromised their ability to successfully set up parental controls and that parents may be more confident than they should be that the controls are properly set."

There seems to be a gap in parents understanding all the various rating systems that many of these parental controls use as a basis for filtering or blocking content. Perhaps that is where the NTIA working group should start, reviewing and attempting to standardize across media rating strategy that both kids and parents can understand.