- Deseret News - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three major music labels — Sony, Universal and Warner — are all participating in a new agreement with the British government with the intention of helping parents quickly decide which music videos are safe for their kids and which aren’t.

The British Board of Film Classification — the British equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — revealed last month that out of 80 videos the music labels submitted for consideration, about 20 percent would earn an age rating of 12, 15 or 18.

Under the new partnership, labels like Sony will present videos its signed artists make to the board for an age certificate the video will carry when it appears on sites like Vevo or YouTube.

Few might expect musicians to be in favor of the new regulation, but artists have actually led the charge for such measures, including British pop legend Annie Lennox.

In 2013, Ms. Lennox called for age ratings in the wake of explicit music videos from artists like Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, whose singles “Blurred Lines” and “Wrecking Ball” dominated the summer charts that year.

“I’m all for freedom of expression,” Ms. Lennox told the BBC, “but this is clearly one step beyond, and it’s clearly into the realm of porn.”

California-based teacher and technology literacy expert Diana Graber agrees with Ms. Lennox’s sentiment, saying that society doesn’t yet know the full impact graphic online content has on kids.

“One of the most searched-for words for 7-year-olds is ‘porn.’ Think about that,” Ms. Graber said. “An innocent mind can be made un-innocent in 30 seconds.”

Peter Hart of the National Coalition Against Censorship says similar regulation would be met with skepticism in the U.S., but Britain’s policy is a sign of how the Internet has changed people’s attitudes about content regulation.

“There’s been a massive change from when there were publishing gatekeepers deciding on what books would be published, or the MPAA being the final word on age ratings for movies,” Mr. Hart said. “The Internet has created a system where most of those old restrictions are gone.”

Why not here?

While America may not yet have government-sanctioned age ratings on Internet videos, psychologist and author Jim Taylor says some form of regulation is likely coming.

“Our political system is averse to anything that could be viewed as censorship or regulation of free speech,” Mr. Taylor said. “But we already do this in other areas. There have been ratings for video games for years.”

Americans might be mistrustful of content regulation, but Ms. Graber says another factor is a lack of demand for content ratings.

“We hate the government until we need it and right now we’re not asking for ratings. We’re reaching that tipping point but haven’t gotten there yet because we don’t see the problem yet,” Ms. Graber said. “We won’t see the effects for kids for 10 years when the research comes out. Once that happens, more parents will realize the full problem.”

Mr. Taylor said it’s important to remember that while it might seem like ratings have been slow to come to online platforms like YouTube, society is still writing the rulebook for a relatively young medium.

“We’re still playing catch up on these issues in our country in how to guide what’s appropriate for kids on the Internet,” Mr. Taylor said.

While Internet users are still figuring out how to handle age-appropriate content, Mr. Hart says YouTube is trying to balance freedom of expression with what its users want.

“These companies are all privately controlled, so they declare their own policies but they often change because they have a vested interest,” Mr. Hart said. “YouTube is trying to carve out what kind of outlet it wants to be. It wants to be an open platform, but there are all kinds of exceptions to that.”

Parental guidance required

As the conversation about what’s appropriate for kids online intensified since YouTube’s inception in 2005, Mr. Hart says the changing conversation makes content policies more negotiable than ever.

“In the absence of a government censor board for the Internet, what we have is negotiation, and we’re in a moment for now where we can negotiate what the balance is,” Mr. Hart said.

YouTube has changed its policies for users over the years. It began offering optional content filters in 2010 designed to keep young eyes from seeing what it deems “potentially inappropriate” material. But for many parents, navigating YouTube’s site to find the filters is a daunting task that might not catch everything they find distasteful or inappropriate.

This year, YouTube was included on the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s “Dirty Dozen” list. “YouTube, the most popular video-sharing site in the world, makes pornography and other explicit content easily accessible on the Internet, despite YouTube’s strict terms of use,” the center said. “The website does little to monitor or restrict inappropriate content and forces users to go through a rigorous process if they want to report the content for removal,” it added.

YouTube’s parent company Google banned pornography from its ads and search results this year. This month, YouTube unveiled YouTube Kids, a free app with content tailored specifically for young children.

The changes are helpful, Mr. Taylor said, but they can only augment good parenting.

“It used to be relatively easy to control the messages kids get, because we knew where it was coming from — immediate family, school, the community and some radio and TV,” Mr. Taylor said. “There’s no right answer about how much kids should see or at what age kids should see sexually explicit material. That’s a private decision based on the values of each family.”

Ms. Graber says the key for most parents is to watch online content with kids, talk about it and write to companies like YouTube asking for more tools. It takes effort, Ms. Graber says, but it’s worth every minute.

“Communications is the best filter in the world. Don’t be afraid to parent the same way online and offline,” Ms. Graber said. “It only takes one image to create a very vivid, dramatic experience you can’t erase for your child.”

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