Last week I was reading at Elizabeth Floss’s blog about a new tool coming out called MPower. Being that I am sort of a technology junkie I was intrigued by this idea. Content filtering isn’t a new idea by any means, after all you could pick up NetNanny over ten years ago to help filter internet content and the movie rating system has been around even longer. I have long had three major concerns with these tools and I don’t think Mpower will be markedly different. The first issue is that they never work that well , second is my belief that much of the most damaging content on TV is not objectionable in the “checklist” sense – it is more complex and subtle and third context matters — in most cases it matters more than content.
These Things Usually Don’t Work Very Well: After having looked over the Mpower site and they claim that they will be able to clip out “seamlessly” offensive content according to settings that you select. (watch their video to see) In the FAQs section they explain that not every show will be content scrubbed, only the most popular shows and then they will also offer family safe viewing options. So first off it will not cover everything. My assumption is that they actually use humans for content filtering (someone is viewing the show and editing for content limitations according to the training the receive) which is actually much more reliable than software filtering, as anyone who has ever tried to manage a message board with word filtering and found that something ridicules like “grape” was being filtered out will tell you.
I can’t find anything that makes me think that the internet filtering will be very sophisticated. They claim the will block “Hard-core” porn and will send a notification when the block is circumvented, but there is a lot of content on the internet that isn’t hard-core porn but is still seriously objectionable. My total guess is that there will be DNS blocking of sites.
I am willing to give Mpower the benefit of the doubt and maybe they will do content filtering better, but I will not be surprised if they have a very limited selection of programs that they filter, have a good deal of problems with the filtering they do and end up with the exact same filtering issues that usually plague the “parental control” tools.
A Lot of the Worst Stuff Isn’t Violence or Sex: Now before you think I am saying something I am not let me explain that I do NOT think that children should be watching sex, violence or “mature” content on TV. But I do think that there are things on TV that do our children just as much, if not more harm, than the occasional vulgar word, naked body or violent scene. Anti-adult messages, consumerism, materialism, a host of poor values are shown in nearly every single show. The world of television is more violent than real life. It portrays a higher standard of living than most children will ever experience as normal. It sets an unrealistic standard of physical beauty and the ideal of beauty exemplified in the media is more the creation of marketing — designed to undermine the self-esteem of young woman in a crass bid to sell them more products that they “must” have in order to feel good enough about themselves. Moral relativism, anti-clericalism, and an antipathy toward organized religion are so common place that the few exceptions to it stand out as note worthy. But these are not things that are “filterable”. In my mind these things end up being far worse for our children overall than the objectionable items which can be filtered. In part because they are so prevalent in the media they end up being viewed as normal. To put it another way… it isn’t just the individual scenes of objectionable material that I object to, it is the over sexualized, materialistic, relativistic anti-religious world view that is the predominate view, the normalized view on television that I object to.
Context Really Matters: So this brings me to my last point of concern, context makes a HUGE difference. Context can more or less redeem some otherwise objectionable content. The villain meeting his violent end, a breast exposed in a video about breast-feeding or “cultural” nudity, the romantic kiss at the end of a movie… could all in theory be blocked because they match the checklist “bad stuff” of a filter (either software or human). On the other hand some movies and TV shows are so violent or sexual as a result of their thesis that I can’t image any amount of filtering being enough. Irony or ironies one such movie is the example of filtering in the Mpower video. If you watch the promotional video you will see an example of filtering on “domestic violence”. “I don’t want my children to see domestic violence”, says the voice over while we watch a scene being edited to remove the images of a husband backhanding his wife. The problem with this is that the scene is from the movie “The Stoning of Soraya M” (at least I am fairly certain it is). I am at a loss how a movie about a woman being stoned because she was falsely accused of adultery at the hands of her abusive and ambitious husband so he can marry another woman is going to be made “family friendly” because the scene where his hand hits her head his removed. If you child is old enough to grasp all the really intense issues about the rights of women under shira law — old enough to get something worthwhile from the movie as a whole then they probably will be able to internalize and conceptualize the wrong that this man does to his wife — both hitting her and framing her for adultery and letting her be executed. I can not image how you could cut enough scenes from the movie to make it ok for a child who hadn’t reached that level of understanding. Another example – The Passion of the Christ – if you blocked every scene that was objectionable on the violence you wouldn’t have much movie left. But then again what parent would toss these movies into the DVD player for their 6-year-old to watch? Not many I suspect.
This attitude might put me at odds with other mothers in the particulars, but there are movies that contain a fair amount of violence that I really have no problem with my children seeing, especially my older elementary aged children. The Narnia movies, the LOTR movies or one of my boy’s favorites (they are 11 and 6) Master and Commander. The violence in all three is “war” these are battle scene movies and there are definitely good guys and bad guys and violence isn’t some game or morally neutral abstract. Violence is hard and sad and even a little frightening but forced upon the good guys. Master and Commander shows the life of young men on a British ship of war (even the maybe eight or nine-year-old “powder boys”. To see a young midshipman step up and take command, a boy of maybe 13, is inspiring to my young men – the violence ads realism, it isn’t over the top, but it is enough to make the reality of the boy’s courage more admirable . Life on a ship of war wasn’t a game, it was a life or death high stakes venture for all involved.
So for us context is every bit as important as content. Another movie that I watch with the children is “The Mission” which tells to story of Jesuit missionaries who are caught between their duty to the church and their duty to the people they serve when the Church is strong armed by the Portuguese government into surrendering control of her missions in Paraguay and Brazil. It is a rich and complex movie (and one I think is highly underrated) it has some violence and some cultural nudity — the issues are really complex on some levels, but I find it has a great deal of value for my older children (the 11 and up crowd) you see a native priest forced at gunpoint to take off his clerical robes – racism in action. Several priest die. The two lead characters, one a reformed slave trader who dies fighting to defend his flock, and the other serves them by saying Mass and is shot leading his congregation with the monstrance. Which one chose the better path? Why did the do what they did? Why were some of the soldiers so reluctant to fight (one commander has tears streaming down his face and fights on anyhow) These are wonderful questions for a boy of 11 to be thinking about. But I wouldn’t ever just sit them in front of the TV thinking that Mpower was going to filter out anything objectionable.
So what to do? Honestly I think products such as Mpower are going completely the wrong direction. The are working on two premises — one that families have to watch television and two that eliminating offensive scenes is the enough. I don’t think either one is true. You really can have more control over what your children see if you just drastically limit it. Cut cable all together, be selective with what you bring into the home and watch it with your children (especially the first time). Discuss what they see and point out those things you agree with or don’t. Technology isn’t going to fix what is wrong with our current media, most of it is just a wasteland to start with and attempting to rely on such technology is probably not a sensible solution if you are seriously concerned about the moral messages your child is exposed to and assimilates as opposed to the scenes they are watching or not.