Parents and Media Ratings: Context Isn't a New Concept

06/24/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

In the July issue of "Pediatrics," a research team headed by Iowa State's Douglas Gentile found that parents are not satisfied with age-based rating systems like those used by the television V-chip, on video game boxes, or for movies by the MPAA. As I read coverage of the studies, I was compelled to check the publication date, to be certain they weren't conducted in 1996.

Gentile's research might have been news then, when the V-chip was introduced. Cable penetration was around two-thirds of the country and digital TV was years away; fewer than a fifth of Americans were online; today's immersive mobile media world was the stuff of dreams or science fiction. TV technology wasn't ready for multi-dimensional ratings or equipped to do much beyond "block" or "pass."

Today, his conclusions are beyond obvious, and ignore the profusion of data sites, expert reviews, apps and social networks that support (if not supplant) the basic V-chip, MPAA and ESRB ratings.

The studies suggest as eye-opening what most child study experts accept as fundamental: development follows a consistent path, but the pace at which individual kids take that path varies considerably. Development cannot be divorced from context - family values, culture and ethnicity, religion, educational philosophy, SES and more contribute to what parents want, expect and allow - and at what age.

This doesn't just apply to media, but also to how a child is educated, his or her latitude to explore, games and toys, friends, and much more. The section of Gentile's studies devoted to what particular words, acts and themes parents would filter proves this, and only bolsters the idea that no single rating system could please all parents.

Even 16 years ago, there was anxiety that the V-chip was more censor than guide. In July 1995, before the Telecommunications Act passed Congress, the American Center for Children's Television (my organization's former name) organized a panel on "V-Chip Ratings: Proposals for Informing, Not Infringing," and published an article titled, "The V-Chip: V as in Versatile."

The discussion and article predicted the move from dumb VCRs to smart DVRs, and acknowledged that nuanced program guides and navigation systems would be critical. Both also forecast developments that would enable democratization of ratings: rather than having to rely on a single-source assessment, parents would be empowered to choose among competing reviews, finding the one(s) that suited their values.

In both these regards, we and our diverse experts looked ahead to ratings options that would help parents find the shows they wanted, not simply avoid those they didn't, but this new research is substantially focused on the inappropriate.

All our forecasts and more have come to pass. The flexible, contextual ratings that Gentile suggests parents would prefer have been available for years. The best, most widespread purveyor is Common Sense Media; their reviews are even used to underpin some content providers' on-demand or search services. Still, if Common Sense values are not your own, you can use Parents Television Council reviews or wade into the ocean of mommy bloggers, "Patch" or columnists and other sources.

Reputable studies throughout the life of the V-chip have found that large majorities of parents liked the concept, but 15% or fewer had actually programmed or engaged it. While the concept of a simple device to protect children from sexual or violent content sounded appealing, the practical benefit simply wasn't there for a device that only blocked shows (including some parents wanted to see) regardless of context.

With the explosion of new, digital platforms, there are at least two projects underway - one spearheaded by Common Sense Media and the other by the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent's College - on multi-dimensional ratings for children's digital media, in one case to assess educational value, and in the other to define and describe "quality."

V-chip, ESRB and MPAA ratings remain important, but are far from monolithic. Given the evolution of technology, Gentile's research would have been much more revealing and useful had he asked parents about the range of sources they do use to navigate the ever-more complex media landscape.